European, Israeli Jews gather undisturbed in predominantly Muslim city in Russia


Hundreds of Israeli and European Jews convened in the capital of the predominantly Muslim Russian state of Tatarstan for an annual Jewish music festival as well as a Jewish learning Limmud FSU conference.

The two events, which coincide with a third — the Sept. 4 European Day of Jewish Culture — kicked off Friday evening on a large stage that city authorities erected on a central pedestrian street in Kazan for concerts by  Simcha, a local klezmer band, and Shouk, an Israeli ensemble that came for the Limmud FSU event.

Since 2012, the city of Kazan 450 miles east of Moscow has held an annual Jewish music festival around Rosh Hashanah. And last year, the city held a series of Jewish-themed events outside the synagogue, including Kazan’s first Limmud FSU Jewish learning conference and a gathering by Chabad rabbis from across the former Soviet Union.

At a time when comparable Jewish events are confined to indoors and heavily guarded spaces across Western Europe for fear of terrorism, Friday’s event was unfenced and unguarded. Thousands of passersby huddled near the stage, paused and danced to the klezmer and Israeli music, including the song “I am Always Jewish” by Simcha, which was founded in 1989 when other Jewish cultural activities invited negative reactions on the part of communist authorities.

The Limmud FSU event this year emphasizes Kazan’s role as a station on the path of the so-called Tehran Children — the name used to refer to a group of Polish Jewish children, mainly orphans, who escaped the Nazi German occupation of Poland via Kazan and Samarkand in what is today Uzbekistan and onto pre-state Israel via Tehran.

The Limmud FSU’s program this year featured a commemoration for Yanush Ben Gal, a survivor from the Tehran Children group who grew up to be one of the Israel Defense Forces’ most highly-esteemed generals for his success in halting the advance of far larger Syrian forces on the Golan Heights. He died in February at the age of 80 and was scheduled to return to Kazan Friday.

Limmud FSU founder Chaim Chesler and Ben Gal’s widow, Avital, held a commemoration service for him at the Great Synagogue of Kazan Friday. The city currently has 10,000 Jews.

“Beyond being a model for coexistence, one needs to appreciate that Kazan has traditionally been a haven for Jews and still is,” Chesler said of the decision to turn Limmud conference into an annual event here. “This means that we have a commitment to this place.”

Netanyahu to meet Putin in Moscow on April 21


Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will meet Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow on April 21 to discuss security issues in the Middle East, an Israeli political source said on Tuesday.

Israel and Russia have maintained a hotline to help avoid their aircraft accidentally clashing over Syrian territory. This has allowed Israel to continue to carry out covert strikes to foil suspected Hezbollah or Iranian operations against it on Syrian turf without fear of accidentally clashing with Moscow.

Israeli officials have privately said that Russian forces sent in last year to help Syrian President Bashar al-Assad turn the tide in a five-year-old civil war also served to restrain his anti-Israel allies – Iran and Lebanon's Hezbollah militia.

Despite its declared withdrawal of most military forces two weeks ago, Russian forces continue to operate in Syria and jets and helicopters have carried out dozens of strikes daily over Palmyra, helping the Syrian army recapture the historic city from Islamic State militants.

Putin told visiting Israeli President Reuven Rivlin earlier in March that he had agreed to meet Netanyahu to discuss the security situation in the Middle East.

An Israeli official who declined to be named said that during Rivlin's meeting with Putin, he “asked that Russia work to restore UNDOF as part of any long-term arrangement in Syria”, referring to a United Nations peacekeeping force.

Personnel from UNDOF, which monitors the Israeli-Syrian frontier on the Golan Heights, have come under fire and even been kidnapped by militants fighting Assad's forces, prompting peacekeeping contingents from some participating nations to withdraw from the force.

In wake of Russia’s planned Syria withdrawal, Putin and Netanyahu to hold security meeting


Russian President Vladimir Putin and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will meet soon in Moscow to discuss regional security and trade.

At a joint news conference Wednesday with Israeli President Reuven Rivlin before their meeting in Moscow, Putin announced his plans for the Netanyahu meeting, the Times of Israel reported.

Israeli officials confirmed that a sit-down between the two leaders will happen soon, but did not offer specific dates.

Citing Russian media, the Times of Israel reported Putin saying the two countries “have a large number of questions to discuss linked with the development of bilateral trade and economic relations and questions of the region’s security.”

On Monday, Putin made the surprise announcement that he plans to pull most of his forces out of Syria, which has been entangled in a civil war for five years. The next day, en route to Russia for a two-day trip, Rivlin told the Israeli media that “there is a need for coordination” with Russia on the Syria situation to ensure that Russia’s withdrawal does not result in strengthening Hezbollah and its backer Iran, both sworn enemies of Israel.

“Everyone understands that Islamic State is a danger to the entire world, but the Shiite fundamentalist Islam of Iran is for us no less a threat,” Rivlin said before the trip, according to The Jerusalem Post.

An unidentified senior Israeli official told the Post on Tuesday, “This is not a zero-sum game. Russia has interests similar to ours. They also do not want to see a strong Iran that will spread terror on Russia’s southern border. The Russians also understand that it will not be good if Hezbollah remains and becomes established in Syria.”

In his joint news conference with Rivlin, Putin said, “The ties between our countries are based on friendship and mutual understanding,” noting that Israel has a significant population of Russian emigres and tourism between the two countries is on the rise.

Rivlin said the Jews would always remember Russia’s key role in World War II, noting that “many Holocaust survivors all over the world remember being liberated by the Red Army.”

Russian non-Jews can begin conversion before immigrating to Israel


Russian non-Jews who are preparing to immigrate to Israel have been given the option of beginning their conversion to Judaism in Moscow.

The option came with the launch last week in Russia of the Maslul project, a joint initiative of several organizations for facilitating the conversion process for prospective immigrants even before they land in the Jewish state.

Started last year in Ukraine, the Maslul course, which was born out of a partnership between the Triguboff Institute, the Jewish Agency for Israel and the Australian branch of United Israel Appeal, will operate in Russia from Moscow’s Choral Synagogue Jewish community center, headed by the city’s chief rabbi and president of the Conference of European Rabbis, Pinchas Goldschmidt.

In Moscow, a six-person team will locate eligible nominees for the project and run the educational program, which meets the curriculum of the Jewish Agency’s National Institutes for Identity and Conversion, a state-recognized entity. In Ukraine, Maslul operates a program for several dozen people with 10 instructors. Conversion students are accredited for material covered in Maslul programs outside Israel and may complete the process in Israel.

Israel’s Law of Return for Jews gives citizenship to some people with family ties to Jews but are not Jewish themselves according to halachah, or religious Jewish law, and therefore can not marry under Jewish law. Israel has hundreds of thousands of citizens, mostly from former Soviet countries, who identify culturally as Jewish but are not recognized as such, thus they are unable to marry as Jewish in Israel.

This and other problems lead to a feeling of estrangement, according to Benjamin Ish-Shalom, the National Institute’s chairman. Many olim who are not familiar with Judaism “find themselves bewildered once they come across it after their aliyah,” he said.

Non-Jews who begin their conversion after immigrating to Israel, or making aliyah, have difficulties completing their conversion because of the hardships of immigration, according to Shalom Norman, the Harry O. Triguboff Israel Institute of Conversion Policy, adding that Maslul was designed to solve this problem.

U.S. pulls plug on Syria rebel training effort; will focus on weapons supply


The United States will largely abandon its failed efforts to train moderate Syrian rebels fighting Islamic State, and instead provide arms and equipment directly to rebel leaders and their units on the battlefield, the Obama administration said on Friday.

The U.S. announcement marked the effective end to a short-lived $580 million program to train and equip units of fighters at sites outside of Syria, after its disastrous launch this year fanned criticism of President Barack Obama's war strategy.

The Pentagon said it would shift its focus away from training to providing weapons and other equipment to rebel groups whose leaders have passed a U.S. vetting process to ensure they are not linked to militant Islamist groups.

The strategy switch comes as the Obama administration grapples with a dramatic change in the landscape in Syria's four-year civil war, brought about by Russia's military intervention in support of President Bashar Assad. Moscow's intervention has cast doubt on Obama's strategy there and raised questions about U.S. influence in the region.

Moscow is mounting air strikes and missile attacks that it says are aimed both at supporting its longtime ally Assad and combating Islamic State. Washington says Russian air strikes in Syria are targeted primarily not at Islamic State but at other rebel groups, including those that have received U.S. support.

Obama has previously questioned the notion that arming rebels would change the course of Syria's war. In an interview with the New York Times in August 2014, he said the idea that arming the moderate Syrian opposition would make a big difference on the battlefield had “always been a fantasy.”

By vetting only rebel commanders, the new U.S. policy could raise the risk that American-supplied arms could fall into the hands of individual fighters who are anti-Western.

Christine Wormuth, the Pentagon's No. 3 civilian official, said however that the United States had “pretty high confidence” in the Syrian rebels it would supply, and that the equipment would not include “higher end” arms such as anti-tank rockets and shoulder-fired anti-aircraft rockets.

The Pentagon will provide “basic kinds of equipment” to leaders of the groups, Wormuth, Under Secretary of Defense for Policy, told reporters on a White House conference call.

The Syrian rebel groups that have recently won favor with Washington include Sunni Arabs and Kurds as well as Syrian Christians, U.S. officials have said.

Wormuth defended the Pentagon program launched in May that trained only 60 fighters, falling far short of the original goal of 5,400 and so working out at a cost so far of nearly $10 million per trained fighter.

“I don't think at all this was a case of poor execution,” Wormuth said. “It was inherently a very, very complex mission,”

Ben Rhodes, the White House deputy national security adviser, said the new approach showed there had been “deficiencies” in the train-and-equip program that had to be addressed.

When it was launched, the program was seen as a test of Obama's strategy of having local partners combat Islamic State militants and keeping U.S. troops off the front lines. But the program was troubled from the start, with some of the first class of fighters coming under attack from al Qaeda's Syria wing, Nusra Front, in their battlefield debut.

The Pentagon confirmed last month that a group of U.S.-trained Syrian rebels had handed over ammunition and equipment to Nusra Front, purportedly in exchange for safe passage.

PROBLEMS RECRUITING

The administration has acknowledged that its efforts to attract recruits have struggled because the program was solely authorized to fight Islamic State, rather than Assad.

“No one in Syria is going to just fight ISIL … it's doomed to fail with these restrictions,” Republican Senator Lindsey Graham said on MSNBC, using an acronym for Islamic State. Graham has been a leading critic of the Syria policy of Obama, a Democrat.

Pentagon spokesman Peter Cook said in a statement that the plan was to supply rebel groups so that they could “make a concerted push into territory still controlled by ISIL.”

The United States would also provide air support to rebels as they battle Islamic State, Cook said.

U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter said in the statement he believed the changes would “over time, increase the combat power of counter-ISIL forces in Syria.”

U.S. support would now focus on weapons, communications gear and ammunition, another Pentagon official said, speaking on condition of anonymity, adding the re-envisioned program would start in “days.” The official declined to say how many Syrian rebel leaders would be trained.

Another U.S. official said the new weapons supplies could eventually be channelled through vetted commanders to thousands of fighters, but declined to be more specific about the numbers.

The Pentagon did not name which groups would receive support.

Reuters reported last week that the Obama administration was considering extending support to thousands of Syrian rebel fighters, including along a stretch of the Turkey-Syria border, as part of the revamped approach to Syria.

The United States would also support members of the Syrian Arab Coalition, under that plan.

Speaking to reporters during a visit to London, Carter said the new U.S. effort would seek to enable Syrian rebels in much the way the United States had helped Kurdish forces to successfully battle Islamic State in Syria.

After Islamic State's brutal offensive through northern Iraq in June 2014, Obama asked Congress for an initial $500 million to “train and equip” Syria's opposition fighters, whom he later described as “the best counterweight” to Islamic State militants and a key pillar in his campaign to defeat them.

U.S. ‘greatly concerned’ by Russia incursion of Turkey airspace


Secretary of State John Kerry said on Monday the United States was “greatly concerned” about the incursion by a Russian plane into Turkish airspace over the weekend and he had intensified discussions with Moscow.

He said his Turkish counterpart called him about the incident on Saturday, which Kerry discussed with Defense Secretary Ash Carter and Susan Rice, the White House national security adviser.

“We are greatly concerned about it because it is precisely the kind of thing that, had Turkey responded … it could have resulted in a shootdown, and it is precisely the kind of thing we warned against,” Kerry said during a visit to Chile.

He said he had since intensified diplomatic discussions to ensure that there was no accidental conflict between Russian and coalition aircrafts over Syria.

“Those conversations are even more intense now and we will see very quickly if this can be defused,” Kerry said, adding that Russia had a fundamental responsibility to act in accordance with international standards.

Kerry also said it was now clear after the weekend incident that Russia's motives were broader than just fighting Islamic State militants in Syria.

He said Russia should communicate directly to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad what is expected of him under a political transition in Syria.

“I would say to Russia that their 'client' who was in great trouble needs to know more directly what Russia has communicated to us and what is required of him in order to live up to international expectations here,” Kerry said.

He added: “If he doesn't do that, then we will be continuing to move in a direction that would almost certainly guarantee much more terrorism, much more conflict, and possibly the complete destruction of the state of Syria.”

Turkey, which has the second-largest army in NATO, scrambled two F-16 jets on Saturday after a Russian aircraft crossed into its airspace near its southern province of Hatay, the Turkish foreign ministry said.

Moscow's unexpected move last week to launch air strikes in Syria has brought the greatest threat of an accidental clash between Russian and Western forces since the Cold War.

Israel-Russia military coordination talks on Syria to open Tuesday


A senior Russian military delegation will visit Israel on Tuesday for two days of talks on how the countries can avoid accidentally clashing while operating in Syria, an Israeli military officer said.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Russian President Vladimir Putin agreed on Sept. 21 to set up teams as Moscow steps up military support for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, who has been losing ground to an Islamist-led insurgency.

Israel is worried the Russian deployment, which includes advanced anti-aircraft units and warplanes, risks pitting Russian forces against its own over Syria.

Israel has attacked Syrian armed forces and arch-foe Lebanese Hezbollah, a Damascus ally, during the four-year civil war in its hostile neighbor. It has said it holds the Syrian government responsible for any spillover of violence.

On Sept. 27, Israel struck Syrian army targets on the Golan Heights in retaliation for cross-border rocket fire. In August, it waged its heaviest bombardment since the conflict began, killing Palestinian militants in response to cross-border fire.

The Russian delegation will be led by First Deputy Chief of General Staff General Nikolai Bogdanovsky, who will meet his Israeli counterpart, Deputy Chief of Staff Major-General Yair Golan.

“The two will meet at military command headquarters in Tel Aviv as part of the two-day visit of the Russian army delegation to Israel. Among other matters, they will discuss regional coordination issues,” the Israeli officer said on Monday.

After Putin and Netanyahu met, an Israeli military officer, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told Reuters the countries would focus on aerial operations in Syria and “electromagnetic coordination”.

The latter appeared to refer to the sides agreeing not to scramble each other's radio communications or radar-tracking systems, and devising ways of identifying each other's forces to avoid any unintended confrontation in the heat of battle.

Israel and Russia will also coordinate on sea operations off Syria's Mediterranean coast, where Moscow has a major naval base, the Israeli officer said.

In explaining Israel's objectives in coordination with the Russians, Netanyahu told CNN in an interview on Sunday: “I went to Moscow to make it clear that we should avoid a clash between Russian forces and Israeli forces.”

“In Syria, I've defined my goals. They're to protect the security of my people and my country. Russia has different goals. But they shouldn't clash,” he said.

When asked by Reuters about the talks, an official at the Russian embassy in Israel declined to comment.

Russia steps up demand for U.S. to drop European missile shield


Russia urged the United States on Friday to scrap plans to station parts of a missile shield system in Europe now that Iran has reached an agreement with world powers to limit its nuclear program.

Moscow has long opposed the plan, which it sees as a threat to its nuclear deterrence, and vowed to retaliate if it goes ahead. Washington has previously assured Moscow the shield was meant as protection from “rogue” states like Iran, and not directed against Russia.

Since the July agreement under which Tehran agreed to curb its nuclear program in exchange for an easing of U.N., U.S. and European Union sanctions, Moscow has stepped up its rhetoric against the missile shield.

“We don't see any reason to continue with the program, let alone at such an accelerated pace and with a clear aim at the Russian nuclear potential,” Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov told reporters.

The latest spat threatens to further worsen a deep chill in ties between Moscow and Washington, now at their lowest point since the Cold War because of the conflict in Ukraine.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov last week said Barack Obama “was not telling the truth” in comments he made in 2009 linking the need for a missile shield to what the president called the “real threat” from Iranian nuclear and ballistic missile activity.

“ARTIFICIAL ARGUMENTS”

At the time, Obama said: “As long as the threat from Iran persists, we will go forward with a missile defense system that is cost-effective and proven. If the Iranian threat is eliminated, we will have a stronger basis for security, and the driving force for missile defense construction in Europe will be removed.”

Moscow says those comments mean that with the resolution of the Iranian nuclear issue, Washington should now walk away from the missile shield plan.

But William Stevens, spokesman for the U.S. embassy in Moscow, said even if the agreement was fully implemented, it did not annul the threat from Iran's ballistic missiles that Obama also mentioned back in 2009.

Under the July deal, U.N. sanctions on Iran's ballistic missiles program will stay in place for eight years.

“As long as Iran goes on developing and deploying ballistic missiles, the U.S. together with its allies and partners will be working to ensure protection from this threat, including through deploying the NATO missile shield system,” Stevens said.

Ryabkov said Moscow ruled out the possibility of using mid-range ballistic missiles with non-nuclear warheads to target Europe.

“So I conclude that the U.S. administration is artificially stitching arguments together behind a decision to continue and increase the pace of creating the European missile shield that was in fact taken for different reasons,” he said.

If the shield goes ahead, Russia has said it would retaliate, including by deploying short-range Iskander ballistic missiles in its enclave of Kaliningrad, on the border with NATO members Poland and Lithuania.

Ryabkov also said Russia and Iran had agreed on two bilateral deals as part of implementing the wider nuclear agreement, and were now discussing the details.

He said Russia would take in some 8 tonnes of low-enriched uranium from Iran in exchange for supplies of natural uranium. Moscow and Tehran would also produce medical isotopes at Iran's Fordow uranium enrichment facility.

Auschwitz survivors urge a troubled Europe not to forget


Auschwitz's last survivors urged the world not to forget the horror of the Holocaust 70 years after the Nazi death camp was liberated in the final throes of World War Two, an anniversary that finds Europe again confronted by intolerance.

European Jews warn of a growing under-current of anti-Semitism, fuelled by anger at Israeli policy in the Middle East and social tensions over immigration, inequality and increasing economic hardship under austerity policies that have contributed to a rise of far-right political movements in Europe.

With deep snow blanketing the Polish countryside, some 300 aging survivors and a host of world leaders gathered on Tuesday under a tent at the brickwork entrance to the Auschwitz II-Birkenau camp, the railway tracks that bore more than a million European Jews to their deaths illuminated in gold.

“Seventy years later, the daily cruelty is still etched in my mind,” former prisoner Roman Kent told the gathering.

The commemoration marked perhaps the last major anniversary that survivors of Auschwitz, the youngest of them in their 70s, will be able to attend in notable numbers.

It was held in the shadow of war in neighbouring Ukraine, a spate of assaults on Jews in Europe and a recrudescence of open anti-Semitism even as memories of the Holocaust fade with the passing of those who lived through it.

“To remember is not enough; deeds are crucial,” said Kent. “It is our mutual obligation – the survivors and world leaders – to install an understanding of what happens when prejudice and hatred are allowed to flourish.”

A string quartet played the work of Szymon Laks, a Polish Jewish composer who led the prisoners' orchestra of Auschwitz-Birkenau and managed to survive the war. David Wisnia, an 88-year-old survivor of Auschwitz, sang a funeral prayer of the Ashkenazi Jews, moving some of those present to tears.

Seated among them were the heads of state of Germany, France and other nations. France's Francois Hollande made the trip less than three weeks after 17 people, four of them Jews, were killed in Paris by Islamist gunmen in attacks on the Charlie Hebdo satirical weekly newspaper and a kosher supermarket.

Speaking earlier in the day at the Paris Shoah memorial, Hollande addressed France's 550,000-strong Jewish community:

“You, French people of the Jewish faith, your place is here, in your home. France is your country.”

'I WANT TO CRY IT OUT'

Around 1.5 million people, mainly European Jews, were gassed, shot, hanged and burned at the Nazi German death camp in southern Poland, before the Soviet Red Army entered its gates in the winter of 1945 during its decisive advance on Berlin.

Auschwitz has become probably the most poignant symbol of a Holocaust that claimed six million Jewish lives across Europe.

Chancellor Angela Merkel said Germans had an everlasting responsibility to fight all forms of anti-Semitism and racism. “We've got to expose those who promote prejudices and conjure up bogeymen, the old ones as well as the new,” Merkel said on the eve of the anniversary, in apparent reference to the right-wing grassroots PEGIDA movement in Germany.

The camp's victims included, among others, Roma, homosexuals and all shades of political opposition to the Nazis.

Notable for his absence was Russian President Vladimir Putin, whose support of pro-Russian separatist rebels in Ukraine has helped drive Western-Russian relations to their lowest ebb since the Cold War ended 25 years ago.

Poland has been one of the most vociferous critics of Russia's March 2014 annexation of Ukraine's Crimean peninsula and its support for Russian-speaking rebels in eastern Ukraine.

Keen to avoid a domestic political furore, Poland did not send a full diplomatic invitation to Putin, sources told Reuters.

“It would be hard to imagine, in this situation, hosting Russia's president. Albeit informally, Russia is taking part in this (Ukraine) conflict,” Polish Justice Minister Cezary Grabarcyk told Polish ZET radio.

NATO says Russia has sent men and armour to aid the separatists. Putin denies this, but risks new sanctions when European Union foreign ministers meet on Thursday.

Among those who made the return trip to Auschwitz for the first time on Tuesday was 84-year-old Susan Pollack, who made Britain her home after the war having lost her mother to the camp's gas chambers.

Pollack told Reuters: “If at all possible, I'm hoping maybe some relief will come. And I want cry it out, because back then crying in the camp meant weakness, and weakness meant death.”

Rebels press Ukraine offensive, Obama promises steps against Russian-backed ‘aggression’


Pro-Moscow rebels, backed by what NATO says is the open participation of Russian troops, pressed on with their offensive on Sunday after restarting the war in eastern Ukraine with the first all-out assault since a truce five months ago.

U.S. President Barack Obama said Washington was considering all options short of military action to isolate Russia. The European Union called an emergency meeting of foreign ministers of its 28 member states.

“We are deeply concerned about the latest break in the ceasefire and the aggression that these separatists – with Russian backing, Russian equipment, Russian financing, Russian training and Russian troops — are conducting,” Obama told a news conference during a visit to India.

“I will look at all additional options that are available to us short of military confrontation and try to address this issue. And we will be in close consultation with our international partners, particularly European partners.”

NATO accuses Moscow of sending troops to fight on behalf of rebels in territory the Kremlin has dubbed “New Russia” in a war that has killed more than 5,000 people.

In some of the strongest language ever from Brussels, Donald Tusk, the former Polish prime minister who now presides over EU summits as European Council president, denounced “appeasement” of Moscow, a word with unmistakable World War Two connotations.

“Once again, appeasement encourages the aggressor to greater acts of violence. Time to step up our policy based on cold facts, not illusions,” Tusk said on Twitter.

Fighting in eastern Ukraine had mainly died down since a September ceasefire, but in recent days the war has returned in full force, with the rebels announcing the effective end of the truce and an offensive to expand territory under their control.

On Saturday rebels attacked Mariupol, a strategic Black Sea port of 500,000 people and the biggest city still in government hands in the two rebel-dominated eastern provinces. Kiev said 30 civilians were killed in shelling.

Rebels launched new attacks on Sunday against government positions elsewhere along the front line that winds through the two restive provinces, the Kiev army said.

“Rebels are attacking the positions of anti-terrorist operation troops extremely intensively, using artillery, mortars, grenade launchers, tanks,” military spokesman Andriy Lysenko said in a televised briefing.

He said four Ukrainian servicemen had been killed and 17 injured in the past 24 hours and that rebel attacks on the town of Debaltseve, northeast of separatist-held Donetsk, had been particularly fierce.

“Because of constant shelling in the past few days, there are dead and injured among local residents. Around 60 homes have been destroyed or damaged,” he said without giving a figure for the number of casualties.

Rebel leader Alexander Zakharchenko said on Saturday the separatists planned to encircle Debaltseve, which has a population of around 26,000.

NEW SANCTIONS

After months in which European politicians had been debating whether it was time to start rolling back sanctions, the talk now is of how to tighten them.

“If the Russian government cannot prove that it is making verifiable progress towards a de-escalation of the situation, we'll have to talk about more severe sanctions unfortunately,” said German politician Karl-Georg Wellmann, a foreign policy specialist for Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats.

Merkel called the attack on Mariupol “a clear and totally unjustifiable violation of the ceasefire” in telephone calls with the presidents of Ukraine and Russia on Sunday, government spokesman Steffen Seibert said, and asked Russia's Vladimir Putin to prevent further escalation.

The rebels say government forces have been hitting cities with artillery, killing civilians and forcing them to advance to push Kiev's troops further from population centers. Moscow blames the West for failing to force the Kiev government to talk to the rebels.

Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov spoke on Sunday to U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and EU foreign affairs chief Federica Mogherini. He told both the escalation in violence was a result of Kiev refusing a proposal laid out in a letter from Putin to Ukraine's Petro Poroshenko to withdraw heavy weapons away from the demarcation line.

Lavrov blamed the escalation of violence in east Ukraine on what he called “constant shelling of populated areas by Ukrainian army”. He called on Kerry to press Kiev to renounce “betting on the military scenario.”

Mogherini called an emergency meeting of EU foreign ministers for Thursday to discuss Ukraine and the Mariupol assault.

Russia says it has not sent troops into Ukraine, and any Russians there are volunteers. NATO says this is nonsense.

“Russian troops in eastern Ukraine are supporting these offensive operations with command and control systems, air defense systems with advanced surface-to-air missiles, unmanned aerial systems (drones), advanced multiple rocket launcher systems and electronic warfare systems,” NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said.

“I strongly urge Russia to stop its military, political and financial support for the separatists, stop destabilizing Ukraine and respect its international commitments,” he said.

Last week Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko said Russia had 9,000 troops stationed in his country.

Israeli-American ‘Big Brother’ star wins Jewish Moscow beauty pageant


Linor Shefer, an Israeli-American reality television star who was born in Ukraine, won Moscow’s first Miss Jewish Star beauty pageant.

Shefer, a former contender on the Israeli version of “Big Brother,” beat 19 other contestants on Sunday in Moscow’s Metropol Hotel, according to the STMEGI association of Mountain Jews.

Second place went to Emma Tabachnikova 0f Ukraine and Marianne Golushkin of Uzbekistan was third, the Israeli Russian-language news site haifa.vibirai.ru reported.

A panel of four judges selected the winners. The jury included Dorit Golender, Israel’s ambassador to Russia, according to the pageant’s website.

The pageant was sponsored by more than a dozen companies and groups, including the Russian branch of the Hillel Jewish network, and was open to any unmarried woman under the age of 30 who is Jewish according to halachah, Jewish religious law.

Winners will receive prizes selected by the sponsors, the competition’s charter said, but it did not specify what they are.

Shefer, 29, moved with her family to Karmiel in Israel’s North at age 5 from the city of Berdychiv in northern Ukraine. She moved to Los Angeles in 2006 to work in show business. She also lived in New York and worked in real estate before moving back to Israel to be with her family. She served in the Israeli Air Force.

In the United States, Shefer volunteered to strengthen intercommunal ties within U.S. Jewry by participating in the activities of the Russian American Jewish Experience.

Before entering “Big Brother” earlier this year, she began volunteering in Israel.

“I hope to complement my work for Jewish communities in Israel and in the United States with more work for Jews in Russia and elsewhere, to help Jewish values grow in young people today,” she said in a statement about the pageant.

 

U.S., Russia agree to share intelligence on common enemy: Islamic State militants


U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov agreed on Tuesday to increase intelligence sharing between Moscow and Washington on Islamic State militants, focusing on a common enemy even as deep divisions remained over the crisis in Ukraine.

Speaking in Paris after talks with his Russian counterpart, Kerry said the two world powers, whose relations have hit a post-Cold War low over Russia’s role in Ukraine, had a “major responsibility” to find ways to work together on global issues, despite their stark differences in a number of areas.

While leaving little doubt that mutual distrust remains, Kerry stressed that the search for common ground between the two countries against Islamic State, which has seized large swaths of Iraq and Syria in a brutal campaign.

“We both recognize the need to destroy and ultimately defeat ISIL, to degrade their efforts and ultimately to defeat them,” Kerry told a news conference, using an alternative name for the group.

“No decent country by any definition could support the horrors that are perpetrated by ISIL, and no civilized country should shirk its responsibility to stand up and be part of the effort to stamp out this disease.”

Kerry said the United States and Russia had agreed to “intensify intelligence cooperation with respect to ISIL and other counterterrorism challenges of the region.” He said Moscow would also explore whether it could do more to help arm and train Iraq's embattled military.

However, Kerry stopped short of saying that Moscow would join the U.S.-led international coalition against Islamic State. In recent years, as U.S.-Russian relations have deteriorated, intelligence cooperation has suffered.

Moscow has made clear it suspects Washington's ulterior motive is the removal of its ally, Syria's President Bashar al-Assad, and has insisted that U.S. air strikes there need Syrian government and United Nations approval. Washington rejects this.

DIFFERENCES ON UKRAINE

Lavrov has recently called for a new “reset” in relations between Washington and Moscow, referring to an initiative President Barack Obama pursued early in his first term but which has since faded.

Signaling just how difficult it could be to make such a positive shift, Kerry called on Russia to do more to help fully implement a ceasefire in Ukraine between the Western-backed government and pro-Russian separatists rebels fighting in the eastern part of the country.

The truce has come under strain at times since it took effect last month

He said “foreign forces and weapons” must be withdrawn and Russia must complete the pullback of its troops, including heavy equipment, from its border with Ukraine.

Kerry also warned that the United States and the international community would not recognize any referendum held in separatist-held areas of Ukraine, and acknowledged this was a “point of disagreement” in his more than three hours of talks with Lavrov.

Kiev and its Western backers accuse Moscow of backing a pro-Russian separatist revolt in eastern Ukraine by providing troops and arms. Russia denies the charges but says it has a right to defend the interests of the region's Russian-speaking majority.

The West has introduced a wide range of sanctions against Russian banks, energy companies and individuals for Moscow's role in the Ukrainian conflict, which has claimed the lives of over 3,000 people.

In the fight against Islamic State, the United States and Russia have common ground in their concern about fighters from their countries joining the group’s insurgency and then returning to carry out attacks at home.

“ There may be as many as 500 or more from Russia,” Kerry said.

These include fighters from Russia's predominantly Muslim North Caucasus, a region where militants wage daily violence to establish an Islamic state.

Additional reporting by Nicholas Vinocur; Editing by Mark Heinrich and Jonathan Oatis

U.S. steps up sanctions on Russia over Ukraine


The United States hit Russia's largest bank, a major arms maker and arctic, deepwater and shale exploration by its biggest oil companies with new sanctions on Friday to punish Moscow for intervening in Ukraine.

The sanctions target companies including Sberbank, the country's largest bank by assets, and Rostec, a conglomerate that makes everything from Kalashnikovs to cars, by limiting their ability to access the U.S. debt markets.

They will also bar U.S. companies from providing goods or services to help five Russian energy companies conduct deepwater, Arctic offshore and shale projects. The Russian companies affected are Gazprom, Gazprom Neft, Lukoil, Surgutneftegas and Rosneft.

The sanctions seek to ban cooperation with Russian oil firms on energy technology and services by companies including Exxon Mobil Corp <XOM.N> and BP Plc <BP.L>.

Russia is one of the world's top oil producers and is the main energy supplier to Europe. Exxon signed a $3.2 billion agreement in 2011 with Russian company Rosneft Oil Co <ROSN.MM> to develop the Arctic.

The sanctions are the latest imposed by the United States and the EU following Russia's annexation of Crimea in March and what the West sees as an effort since to further destabilize Ukraine by backing pro-Russian separatists with troops and arms.

U.S. officials said Washington took the steps because Russia has intensified its involvement in Ukraine by sending troops and arms to support pro-Russian separatists in the eastern part of the country and by shelling it across the border.

But a defiant Russian President Vladimir Putin called the new economic penalties “strange,” given his backing of peace efforts in eastern Ukraine, and said he was considering fresh retaliatory measures.

The U.S. officials stressed that the sanctions could be removed if Russia, which denies sending troops into eastern Ukraine and arming the separatists, took a series of steps including the withdrawal of all of its forces from its neighbor.

“What we’re looking for with regard to Russian action is the complete removal of all military personnel, military equipment, support for military and mercenaries on the territory of Ukraine, release of all hostages,” a senior U.S. official told reporters in a conference call explaining the sanctions.

The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the United States wanted to see the creation of a buffer zone on both sides of the border, which the official said was particularly important to stop shelling of Ukraine by Russia.

The new U.S. sanctions, which for the first time targeted Russia's Sberbank <SBER.MM>, were timed to coincide with new European Union economic penalties that included restrictions on financing for some Russian state-owned companies and asset freezes on leading Russian politicians.

The U.S. Treasury Department said the sanctions include a ban on U.S. individuals or companies dealing with Rostec, a major Russian technology and defense conglomerate, in debt transactions of more than 30 days maturity.

Assets also were blocked for five state-owned defense technology firms, OAO Dolgoprudny Research Production Enterprise, Mytishchinski Mashinostroitelny Zavod OAO, Kalinin Machine Plant JSC, Almaz-Antey GSKB, and JSC NIIP.

The new sanctions also tighten the financial noose on six Russian banks, including Sberbank, by barring U.S. individuals and companies from dealing in any debt they issue of longer than 30 days maturity.

The five banks previously covered had only faced a restriction on debt maturities of more than 90 days. Like those five, Sberbank now also faces a ban on U.S. equity financing.

The Treasury Department also imposed sanctions prohibiting U.S. individuals and companies from dealing in new debt of greater than 90 days maturity issued by Russian energy companies Gazprom Neft and Transneft.

“These steps underscore the continued resolve of the international community against Russia’s aggression,” U.S. Treasury Secretary Jack Lew said in a statement. “Russia’s economic and diplomatic isolation will continue to grow as long as its actions do not live up to its words.”

Additonal reporting by Roberta Rampton, Lesley Wroughton and Timothy Gardner; Editing by Tim Ahmann and Tom Brown

Crisis deepens as Ukraine says Russian soldiers back rebel thrust


Ukraine's president said on Thursday that Russian troops had entered his country in support of pro-Moscow rebels who captured a key coastal town, sharply escalating a five-month-old separatist war.

Petro Poroshenko told a meeting of security chiefs that the situation was “extraordinarily difficult … but controllable” after Russian-backed rebels seized the town of Novoazovsk in the south-east of the former Soviet republic.

Earlier he said he had canceled a visit to Turkey because of the “rapidly deteriorating situation” in the eastern Donetsk region, “as Russian troops have actually been brought into Ukraine”.

Russia's defense ministry again denied the presence of its soldiers in Ukraine, using language redolent of the Cold War, even as two human rights advisers to President Vladimir Putin said more than 100 Russian troops had died there in a single attack on Aug. 13.

“We have noticed the launch of this informational 'canard' and are obliged to disappoint its overseas authors and their few apologists in Russia,” a defense ministry official, General-Major Igor Konashenkov, told Interfax news agency. “The information contained in this material bears no relation to reality.”

But Western governments appeared to be running out of patience with Moscow's denials.

Referring to talks that Putin held with Poroshenko just two days ago, British Prime Minister David Cameron said: “It is simply not enough to engage in talks in Minsk, while Russian tanks continue to roll over the border into Ukraine. Such activity must cease immediately.”

Poland's foreign minister said Russian “aggression” had created the most serious security crisis in Europe for decades, and a top NATO official said Russia had significantly escalated its “military interference” in Ukraine in the past two weeks.

“We assess well over 1,000 Russian troops are now operating inside Ukraine,” said Dutch Brigadier-General Nico Tak, head of NATO's crisis management center. “They are supporting separatists (and) fighting with them.”

Global markets fell on news of the worsening crisis, which has prompted the United States and European Union to impose sanctions on Moscow and led both Russia and NATO to step up military exercises.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel said an EU summit on Sunday would discuss the possibility of further sanctions.

NEW FRONT

Rebel advances this week have opened a new front in the conflict just as Ukraine's army appeared to have gained the upper hand, virtually encircling the separatists in their main strongholds of Donetsk and Luhansk.

Ukraine's security and defense council said Novoazovsk and other parts of southeast Ukraine had fallen under the control of Russian forces, and a counter-offensive by Russian troops and separatist units was continuing.

It said Ukrainian government forces had withdrawn from Novoazovsk “to save their lives” and were now reinforcing defenses in the port of Mariupol further west, which a rebel leader said was the separatists' next objective.

“Today we reached the Sea of Azov, the shore, and the process of liberating our land, which is temporarily occupied by the Ukrainian authorities, will keep going further and further,” Alexander Zakharchenko, prime minister of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People's Republic, told Reuters in an interview.

He said there were about 3,000 Russian volunteers serving in the rebel ranks.

Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseny Yatseniuk appealed to the United States, European Union and G7 countries “to freeze Russian assets and finances until Russia withdraws armed forces, equipment and agents”.

Anton Gerashchenko, an adviser to Ukrainian Interior Minister Arsen Avakov, said on Facebook: “The invasion of Putin’s regular Russian army of Ukraine is now an established fact!”

Despite Russia's denials, a member of Putin's advisory council on human rights, Ella Polyakova, told Reuters she believed Russia was carrying out an invasion of Ukraine.

“When masses of people, under commanders' orders, on tanks, APCs and with the use of heavy weapons, (are) on the territory of another country, cross the border, I consider this an invasion,” Polyakova told Reuters.

Polyakova and Sergei Krivenko, another member of the council, which has no legal powers and an uneasy relationship with the Kremlin, said more than 100 Russian soldiers were killed in Ukraine in a single incident on Aug. 13, basing their information on eyewitnesses and relatives of the dead.

They said the men were in a column of trucks filled with ammunition, which was hit by a sustained volley of Grad missiles.

“A column of Russian soldiers was attacked by Grad rockets and more than 100 people died. It all happened in the city of Snizhnye in Donetsk province,” Krivenko told Reuters.

DUST-COVERED TROOPS

In southern Russia on Thursday, a Reuters reporter saw a column of armored vehicles and dust-covered troops, one of them with an injured face, about 3 km (2 miles) from the border with the part of Ukraine that Kiev says is occupied by Russian troops.

The column was driving east, away from the border, across open countryside near the village of Krasnodarovka, in Russia's Rostov region.

None of the men or vehicles had standard military identification marks, but the reporter saw a Mi-8 helicopter with a red star insignia — consistent with Russian military markings — land next to a nearby military first-aid tent.

Asked if he was with the Russian military, a man in camouflage fatigues without any identifying insignia who was in the area of the tent, said only: “We are patriots.”

The U.S. ambassador to Kiev, Geoffrey Pyatt, tweeted: “Russian supplied tanks, armored vehicles, artillery and multiple rocket launchers have been insufficient to defeat Ukraine' armed forces. So now an increasing number of Russian troops are intervening directly in fighting on Ukrainian territory.

“Russia has also sent its newest air defense systems including the SA-22 into eastern Ukraine & is now directly involved in the fighting,” he said.

Fighting in the east erupted in April, a month after Russia annexed Ukraine's Crimean peninsula in response to the toppling of a pro-Moscow president in Kiev.

A United Nations report this week said more than 2,200 people have been killed, not including the 298 who died when a Malaysian airliner was shot down over rebel-held territory in July.

Additional reporting by Maria Tsvetkova, Anton Zverev, Gabriela Baczynska, Vladimir Soldatkin and Thomas Grove, Adrian Croft, Lina Kushch, Andreas Rinke and Alessandra Prentice; Writing by Mark Trevelyan; Editing by Will Waterman

Russia to hold war games in show of strength near Ukraine


Russia announced military exercises near the border with Ukraine on Monday in a show of strength as the Ukrainian army recaptured more territory from pro-Russian separatists in the east of the country.

The Russian air force said more than 100 aircraft, including fighter jets and bombers, were taking part in the manoeuvres this week in the central and western military districts.

The move could alarm Western powers which have accused Russia of beefing up its troops along its border with Ukraine and arming the rebels in eastern Ukraine, although Moscow denies the accusations.

The manoeuvres include missile-firing practice and will assist “coordination between aviation and anti-missile defence”, Interfax news agency quoted an airforce spokesman as saying.

He said Russia's latest bomber, the Su-24, was taking part, as well as Su-27 and MiG-31 fighter jets.

Russia upset the West by staging military exercises near Ukraine in March after the conflict with Ukraine flared. Moscow said in May it had pulled back its forces but NATO military commander General Philip Breedlove said last week it still had more than 12,000 troops and weapons along the frontier.

The crisis has pushed relations between Russia and the West to their lowest level since the Cold War, with each side accusing the other of orchestrating events in Ukraine, and the United States and European Union imposing sanctions on Russia.

Russia has a firm grip on the Crimea peninsula, which it annexed in March after Ukraine ousted a pro-Moscow president, but the rebels who wanted Moscow to also annexe east Ukraine have been losing ground in the past few weeks.

UKRAINIAN ARMY ADVANCES

Government forces said they had recaptured an important rail hub in the latest fighting near Donetsk, the biggest of the two large cities the rebels still hold after almost four months of fighting.

“Units taking part in the 'anti-terrorist operation' yesterday took the town of Yasynuvata, which is an important hub of the region's railway system,” Andriy Lysenko, a spokesman for Kiev's military operation in the east, told a briefing.

The separatists had seized the Yasynuvata railway control centre in May as their rebellion spread in eastern Ukraine. It sits just north of Donetsk near a main road leading to Luhansk, another remaining rebel stronghold.

Five government soldiers were killed and 15 wounded over the previous 24 hours, Lysenko said. There were no new casualty figures for the rebels in a conflict the United Nations said had killed more than 1,100 people from mid-April to late July.

Fighting has intensified since the West accused the rebels of shooting down a Malaysian airliner last month, killing all 298 people on board. Russia and the rebels blame the disaster on Kiev's military offensive.

In a sign that not all the fighting is going the Ukrainian army's way, Russian border guards said 438 Ukrainian soldiers had crossed into Russia during the night seeking asylum.

“They were tired of the war and wanted no further part in it,” Vasily Malayev, spokesman for the borders guards in the Rostov region of Russia, told Reuters by telephone.

He said they had been treated well, and 180 were being returned to Ukraine later on Monday, but it was not clear what the rest wanted to do.

Lysenko said the soldiers and border guards had crossed into Russia in search of safety after being blocked between the Russian border to the east and pro-Russian rebel positions in the west for more than three weeks.

He gave no numbers but said Kiev was trying to negotiate their return.

The fighting had prevented Dutch and Australian experts reaching the wreckage of the downed airliner in rebel-held territory for several days but they have managed to recover some human remains and belongings in the past few days. The victims included 196 Dutch, 27 Australians and 43 Malaysians.

Additional reporting by Elizabeth Piper, Polina Devitt and Tatiana Ustinova in Moscow and by Gabrieal Baczynska and Natalia Zinets in Kiev; Writing by Timothy Heritage; Editing by Will Waterman

Russia’s Gazprom reduces gas to Ukraine after deadline passes


Russian natural gas exporter Gazprom reduced supplies to Ukraine on Monday after Kiev failed to meet a deadline to pay off its gas debts in a dispute that could disrupt supplies to the rest of Europe.

Announcing that Ukraine will now only get gas it pays for in advance, Moscow put the onus on its neighbour to guarantee the European Union receives supplies that transit through Ukraine.

Kiev and Moscow failed to agree overnight on the price of future gas deliveries, with both sides refusing to abandon well-established positions: Russia offering a discount and Ukraine rejecting it as a tool for political manipulation.

Talks were already difficult but were also clouded by the worst political crisis between Russia and Ukraine since the Soviet Union collapsed, including the shooting down of a Ukrainian military plane by pro-Russian separatists in the east of the country on Saturday and accusations by the West that Russia is arming the rebels.

Russian officials said Alexei Miller, Gazprom's chief executive, and Energy Minister Alexander Novak would meet President Vladimir Putin later on Monday.

“Today, from 10:00 a.m. Moscow time, Gazprom, according to the existing contract, moved Naftogaz to prepayment for gas supplies … Starting today, the Ukrainian company will only get the Russian gas it has paid for,” it said.

Gazprom had demanded Kiev pay off at least $1.95 billion of a gas debt that it puts at more than $4 billion by the Monday morning deadline, or face supply cuts and the prospect of paying up front.

Gazprom said on Monday it had filed a lawsuit at the Stockholm arbitration court to try to recover the debt, while Ukraine's Naftogaz said it was filing a suit at the same court to recover $6 billion in what it said were overpayments.

A source at Gazprom said supplies to Ukraine had been reduced as soon as the deadline passed. EU data suggested that volumes were broadly stable as of 0630 GMT, but it could take hours for data on Russian gas flows via Ukraine to reflect any reduction in supply in Slovakia or elsewhere.

Any reduction of supply could hit EU consumers, which get about a third of their gas needs from Russia, around half of it through pipelines that cross Ukraine. Earlier price disputes led to the 'gas wars' in 2006 and 2009 and Russian accusations that Ukraine stole gas destined for the rest of Europe.

“The gas for European consumers is being delivered at full volume and Naftogaz Ukraine is required to transit it,” Gazprom spokesman Sergei Kupriyanov told reporters.

Ukraine's Naftogaz declined to comment, saying it would issue a statement later in the day, but its pipeline operator Ukrtransgaz said it was operating normally.

SHARES FALL SHARPLY

Russian shares fell on the talks' collapse, which will increase tensions between Moscow and the West and could make it harder to arrange a truce in east Ukraine, where Ukrainian troops are fighting rebels who want the region to be absorbed by Russia.

At 0740 GMT, the dollar-denominated RTS index was down 2.2 percent at 1344 points, while the rouble-based MICEX slid 1.7 percent to 1,476 points, with investors fearful of growing tensions after the failure of talks.

Western countries see the talks as a gauge of Putin's willingness to compromise and had been looking for signs that he was trying to avert the threat of more Western sanctions.

Tensions were already high following Russia's annexation of Crimea after Moscow-leaning president Viktor Yanukovich was ousted and pro-Western leaders took over power in Kiev.

But they rose further at the weekend, when protesters attacked the Russian embassy in Kiev and NATO released satellite pictures on Saturday that it said raised suspicions about Russia's role in moving military equipment into eastern Ukraine.

The gas talks, brokered by the European Commission, broke down in Kiev in the early hours, with the sides unable to reach agreement on prices and on changes to a 2009 contract that locks Ukraine into paying the highest price in Europe. Kiev wants to pay $268.5 per 1,000 cubic metres of gas – the price it had been offered when Yanukovich was in power – but, in a compromise last week, said it would agree to pay $326 for an interim period until a lasting deal was reached.

Moscow had sought to keep the price at the 2009 contract level of $485 per 1,000 cubic metres, but had offered to waive an export duty, bringing down prices by about one-fifth to $385, which brings it broadly into line with what Russia charges other European countries.

Kiev says that waiving the duty rather than agreeing a new contract price means Moscow could use the threat of cancelling the waiver to keep Ukraine in its sphere of influence.

European Energy Commissioner Guenther Oettinger said Moscow had declined a compromise proposal during the talks in which Kiev would pay $1 billion immediately and then make monthly debt payments to Gazprom. Ukraine would also pay $385 per 1,000 cubic metres in winter and around $300 in the summer months.

Ukraine sees ‘understanding’ with Russia on peace moves


Ukraine said on Monday it had reached a “mutual understanding” with Moscow on parts of a plan proposed by President Petro Poroshenko for ending violence in the east of the country.

It gave no other details after a second day of talks on Poroshenko's proposals for ending conflict in which scores of people, including pro-Russian separatist fighters and government forces, have been killed in east Ukraine since April.

“As a result of the work, the sides reached a mutual understanding on key stages of the implementation of the plan and on a list of priorities which will contribute to a de-escalation of the situation in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions of Ukraine,” the Ukrainian Foreign Ministry said.

Moscow did not immediately comment.

The talks are being mediated by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, a security and human rights watchdog. At the first talks on Sunday, with Russian envoy Mikhail Zurabov, Poroshenko said violence must end this week.

The Foreign Ministry did not say who had attended Tuesday's talks, but said the “contact group” would hold further meetings on the crisis, which has caused the worst standoff between Russia and the West since the Cold War ended.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said in Finland on Monday the new government in Ukraine and the European Union had to work more constructively to end the crisis.

“We don't even know what is wanted from us. We are doing everything to resolve the Ukraine situation,” he said at a news conference with Finnish Foreign Minister Erkki Tuomioja after talks.

“I believe that the newly chosen Ukrainian President Poroshenko's contacts (with western leaders) can lead to violence being stopped and internal dialogue beginning.”

Lavrov said the EU's stance was not based on the best interests of its member states.

“It is not surprising that people call the EU stance unconstructive,” he said. “It seeks revenge.”

Since Poroshenko was elected president on May 25, the Ukrainian army has stepped up military operations to take back buildings seized by pro-Russian separatists in several towns and cities in mainly Russian-speaking east Ukraine.

Writing by Timothy Heritage; additional reporting by; Sakari Suoninen; editing by Andrew Roche

Divided eastern Ukraine city calm after battle, rebels seek Russian help


An uneasy calm returned to the streets of Donetsk on Wednesday after the biggest battle of the pro-Russian separatist uprising in eastern Ukraine, a conflict transformed by the landslide election of a pro-European leader who vowed to crush the revolt.

Government forces killed dozens of rebel fighters on Monday and Tuesday in an assault to retake Donetsk International Airport, which the rebels had seized the morning after Ukrainians overwhelmingly elected Petro Poroshenko as president.

Pro-Moscow gunmen have declared the city of a million people capital of an independent Donetsk People's Republic. On Wednesday their leader appealed anew for Russia's help.

In Moscow, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov accused the West of pushing Ukraine into “the abyss of fratricidal war”, and reiterated his call for an end to Kiev's military offensive. Russia's Foreign Ministry urged Kiev to let it send humanitarian aid to civilians trapped by the fighting in eastern Ukraine.

“The residents of the Donetsk People's Republic are on the verge of a humanitarian catastrophe,” said separatist leader Denis Pushilin in his appeal. “We are Russians and this is precisely why they are killing us. We want to become part of Russia.”

The rebels' plight puts pressure on President Vladimir Putin to act, even though he has reduced the number of forces he has massed on Ukraine's eastern border and has said he would recognise the outcome of Sunday's election in Ukraine.

Rebel fighters were strengthening their barricades with sandbags on the road to the airport near the hulk of a truck where many of them were killed by government fire on Monday.

The government assault in Donetsk on Monday and Tuesday was the first time Kiev has unleashed its full military force against the fighters after weeks of restraint. Morgues were filled on Tuesday with bodies of rebel gunmen. Some were missing limbs in a sign of the massive firepower used against them.

The separatist authorities say as many as 50 died, including a truckload of wounded fighters blasted apart as they were driven away from the battlefield. The government said it suffered no losses in the operation, which saw its aircraft strafe the airport and paratroops land to reclaim it.

Poroshenko, 48, a billionaire confectionary magnate who became the first Ukrainian since 1991 to win the presidency outright in a single round of voting, repeated his promise to restore government control rapidly over secessionist-held areas.

“We are in a state of war in the east. Crimea is occupied by Russia and there is great instability. We must react,” he told Germany's Bild newspaper.

“We will no longer permit these terrorists to kidnap and shoot people, occupy buildings or suspend the law. We will put an end to these horrors – a real war is being waged against our country,” said Poroshenko, who is expected to be inaugurated within two weeks.

His swift offensive has thrown down a challenge to Putin, who made defending Russians in other parts of the former Soviet Union a pillar of his rule since declaring his right to use military force in Ukraine in March.

While calling for an end to Kiev's military campaign, Putin has also announced the withdrawal of tens of thousands of Russian troops he had massed on the frontier. A NATO officer said on Wednesday thousands of Russian troops had indeed been pulled out, although tens of thousands were still in place.

Moscow says it is willing to work with Poroshenko but has no plans for him to visit for talks. It denies accusations by Kiev and Western countries that it is behind the rebellion.

“I have no doubt that Putin could end the fighting using his direct influence,” Poroshenko said. “I definitely want to speak with Putin and hold talks to stabilise the situation.” 

FEAR AND DEFIANCE

In Donetsk, the main shopping mall remained closed for a third day and streets were mostly empty. The mayor, Oleksander Lukianchenko, renewed an appeal for people to stay at home and also reported some gunfire coming from the area of the airport.

Lukianchenko's municipal government has remained in place even as separatists have proclaimed themselves in power in the province, a sign of the confused loyalties in the area.

A young man in a helmet at the airport road barricade who gave his name as Yuri said: “I am doing what I can to help our fighters resist the advancing Ukrainian troops. They haven't slept for a third day now and are really nervous, expecting a renewed attack from Ukrainians at any moment.”

Around 1,000 miners bussed in from around the eastern Donbass coalfield staged a demonstration in support of the separatists in Donetsk.

“Kiev does not rule us any more, we will no longer accept that,” separatist leader Pushilin told the crowd. A Ukrainian fighter jet roared overhead and some gunfire could be heard in the distance, apparently from rebels in the vicinity of the security building shooting at the plane.

A miner from the state-owned Abakumova mine attending the demonstration who gave his name as Valery said: “I want peace and to be able to work and make money. I want the occupying soldiers to leave and return to their Kiev junta.”

Russia and its state media which broadcast into eastern Ukraine have consistently described the government in Kiev, which took power after a pro-Russian president fled in February, as illegitimate and led by “fascists”.

But Moscow's position was undermined by the scale of Poroshenko's election victory, and Kiev now appears emboldened to act with less threat of Russian retaliation.

Poroshenko, a former cabinet minister under both pro- and anti-Russian presidents, won 55 percent of the vote, preliminary results show, in a field of 21 candidates. He commanded support across the east-west divide that has defined Ukrainian politics since independence. His nearest challenger won just 13 percent.

The separatists blocked voting in Donetsk and neighbouring Luhansk provinces, but the 10 percent of voters kept away from the polls would not have made a difference to the final outcome.

Although many in eastern Ukraine are sceptical of the government in Kiev, opinion polls have shown most favour some sort of unity with Ukraine, despite referendums in Donetsk and Luhansk staged by the rebels on May 11 that recorded a vote for independence. The majority in the east describe themselves as ethnic Ukrainians who speak Russian as their primary language.

“We live in Ukraine,” said Mikhail, 31, a theatre manager. “I work at the Ukrainian Theatre in Donetsk. Would I work at the Donetsk People's Republic Theatre? That doesn't sound so good. I think all this mess is only temporary.

“I didn't vote because we could not vote here, but Poroshenko seems decent,” he said. “We will see. Many were elected as decent and then turned into bribetakers as a general rule. I hope he will not let Ukraine down.”

There was no word about the fate of a four-man team of OSCE monitors missing after approaching a roadblock near Donetsk on Monday. Ukraine's Foreign Ministry said separatists had abducted them. Western security sources believe the monitors, from Denmark, Estonia, Switzerland and Turkey, are being held near Antratsit, a small town south of the city of Luhansk.

Additional reporting by Lina Kushch and Yannis Behrakis in Donetsk, Gareth Jones and Richard Balmforth in Kiev and Stephen Brown in Berlin; Writing by Gareth Jones and Peter Graff; Editing by Peter Graff

Putin marks Victory in Crimea as Ukraine violence flares


President Vladimir Putin flew in to Crimea on Friday for the first time since it was annexed by Moscow, proclaiming as he marked the Soviet victory in World War II that incorporating the former Ukrainian territory had made Russia stronger.

In east Ukraine, where pro-Moscow rebels plan a referendum on Sunday to follow Crimea in breaking from Kiev, at least seven people were killed and dozens were wounded in chaotic fighting in the center of the port of Mariupol.

One of the most serious clashes yet between Ukrainian forces and separatists, it edged the former Soviet republic closer to civil war.

The head of NATO, locked in its gravest confrontation with Russia since the Cold War, condemned Putin's visit to Crimea, whose annexation in March has not been recognized by Western powers. He also renewed doubts over an assurance by the Kremlin leader that he had pulled back troops from the Ukrainian border.

The pro-Western government in Kiev, labeled “fascist” by Moscow, said Putin's visit was intended to escalate the crisis.

Watching a military parade in Sevastopol on the Black Sea, Putin said: “There is a lot of work ahead but we will overcome all difficulties because we are together, which means we have become stronger.”

Earlier in the day, he had presided over the biggest Victory Day parade in Moscow for years. The passing tanks, aircraft and intercontinental ballistic missiles were a reminder to the world – and Russian voters – of Putin's determination to revive Moscow's global power, 23 years after the Soviet collapse.

“The iron will of the Soviet people, their fearlessness and stamina saved Europe from slavery,” Putin said in a speech to the military and war veterans gathered on Red Square.

The United States said the trip to Crimea was provocative, the European Union said Putin should not have used the World War Two commemoration to showcase the annexation and NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen called the visit “inappropriate”.

The head of the U.S.-led defense pact was speaking in formerly Soviet Estonia, one of a host of east European nations that joined after the collapse of communism, seeking refuge from the power of Moscow, which many in the region regarded as having enslaved them following its victory in World War Two.

Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseny Yatseniuk, in office since an uprising overthrew the Kremlin-backed elected president in Kiev in February, rejects Russian allegations that his power is the result of coup backed by neo-Nazi Ukrainian nationalists.

“Sixty-nine years ago, we, together with Russia, fought against fascism and won,” he said after a Victory Day church service in the capital. Now, he added, “history is repeating itself but in a different form”.

Where Russia and Ukraine stood shoulder to shoulder in the past against Germany, now Germany was “standing shoulder to shoulder with us”, along with the United States and Britain.

Ukraine's SBU security service accused Russian saboteurs of setting a fire that briefly disrupted state broadcasts.

FIGHTING, BLAZE


A man jumps over a burning barricade outside the city hall in the southeastern port city of Mariupol on May 9. Photo by Marko Djurica/Reuters

In Mariupol, eastern Ukraine's main port on the Sea of Azov, regional authorities said seven people had been killed and 39 wounded in the course of an “anti-terrorist operation” – the term Kiev uses for its fight against the separatists.

Journalist Tetyana Ignatchenko said there was fierce fighting outside the police headquarters and video showed armored cars smashing barricades and soldiers exchanging fire with a gunman on the street while crowds milled around.

Ukrainian Interior Minister Arsen Avakov said about 20 “terrorists” were killed when pro-Russian militants tried to seize the city's police headquarters. A figure he gave earlier this week of 30 rebel dead in another city was not confirmed.

A member of Ukraine's parliament, Oleh Lyashko, gave a different account of Friday's events, saying eight rebels had been killed in clashes when Ukrainian forces attacked Mariupol's police headquarters to try to drive out pro-Russian militants.

A local photographer in Mariupol told Reuters the building was ablaze and that two bodies were lying in the street outside.

“One of them is definitely a police officer,” he said.

Ukrainian forces later withdrew from the town, a major industrial center with a population of about half a million.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said after a telephone call with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry on Friday that Moscow hoped Washington would work with Kiev to end Ukraine's military operation against the separatists.

CRIMEAN DELIGHT

In Sevastopol, where Russia's Black Sea Fleet previously had to lease its base from Ukraine, servicemen and veterans marched in a parade before Putin's arrival that also included armored vehicles and anti-aircraft missiles. Banners read “Sevastopol without Fascists” and “It's our duty to remember”.

“I'm here to prevent any provocations from the fascists. I served in a self-defense unit during March, and I consider it my duty to be here,” said Natalya Malyarchuk, 52.

The ethnic Russian majority among Crimea's two million population broadly welcomed the Russian takeover that came in the wake of the Kiev uprising. Given by Soviet leaders to Ukraine only in the 1950s, many Russians long saw it as rightfully theirs. Western powers have imposed sanctions against Russia in response, but reactions have been muted.

Moscow says it has no direct control over the armed rebels in eastern Ukraine running Sunday's referendum on secession from Kiev for the mainly Russian-speaking region.

The European Union is likely to strengthen its targeted sanctions against Russia on Monday, Janusz Lewandowski, a member of the EU's governing commission, said on Friday. Diplomats said they would target about 15 people and several Crimean branches of Ukrainian companies taken over by Russians.

While Putin's redrawing of European borders has sparked great alarm across the continent, U.S. and European leaders are concerned not to harm their own economies by isolating Moscow.

And there is little popular support in the West for an armed conflict with Russia on behalf of Ukraine, a country that is not a member of NATO and where successive leaders have left a legacy of corruption, poverty and feeble state institutions.

In Sevastopol, factory worker Vasily Topol, 31, wearing a white T-shirt with an image of Putin in sunglasses and the words “Russia's Army”, said life was better since Crimea became Russian.

“We have the greatest admiration for Putin, we are morally and materially better off since Crimea became part of Russia,” he said, speaking on an embankment overlooking Russian warships.

EASTERN PARADE


Russian servicemen march during the Victory Day parade in Moscow's Red Square on May 9. Photo by Grigory Dukor/Reuters

In Slaviansk, the military stronghold of the separatists in eastern Ukraine, separatist “people's mayor” Vyacheslav Ponomaryov and a guard of militiamen led a march of around 2,000 people to lay flowers at a memorial to the World War Two dead.

Veteran Anatoly Strizhakov said: “Look at all these people – the children, the women, the pensioners… Today shows we've got the spirit to stand up to whatever the Ukrainians are planning.”

Ponomaryov, who fired a pistol three times in the air during the ceremony, reassured people it would be safe to vote on Sunday. Voters in the two regions, with a combined population of over 6 million, will be asked to vote Yes to the secession of self-styled “People's Republics” in Donetsk and Luhansk.

Opinion polls in recent months have indicated that support for such a move is far from solid and it is unclear how many people will actually take part in voting. A referendum in Crimea in March, which many boycotted, backed secession by 97 percent.

Additional reporting by Nigel Stephenson and Katya Golubkova in Moscow, David Mardiste in Tallinn, Ralph Boulton, Pavel Polityuk, Aleksandar Vasovic and Elizabeth Piper in Kiev and Alessandra Prentice in Slaviansk; Writing by Alastair Macdonald and Philippa Fletcher; Editing by Giles Elgood

Wounded Ukrainian mayor ‘stable’ in Israeli hospital


The mayor of eastern Ukraine's biggest city was in a stable condition on Tuesday in a hospital in Israel, where he was flown after being wounded in the highest-profile assassination attempt in the standoff between Kiev and Moscow.

Gennady Kernes, one of Ukraine's most prominent Jewish politicians, was shot in the back on Monday in Kharkiv, and underwent surgery in Ukraine on Monday. Officials had said his injuries were life-threatening.

“He is stable. That is all we can say right now,” a staff member at Elisha Hospital in Haifa, north Israel, told Reuters.

Israel Radio said Kernes was in Elisha's head injuries department and that doctors believed he did not require further surgery for now as his operation in Ukraine had been successful.

After protesters toppled pro-Moscow Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich in February, Kernes, 54, supported calls for Kharkiv to become independent from Kiev's new, pro-European leaders.

But he changed his views after being accused of fomenting separatism and when Ukrainian police forced pro-Russian protesters out of administrative buildings in the city.

A Ukrainian local government official said Kernes was either riding his bicycle or jogging when he was shot by someone probably hidden in nearby woods. His bodyguards were following in a car but were not close enough to intervene.

The Ukrainian embassy in Tel Aviv said it was not involved in Kernes' hospitalization in Israel, which may have been privately arranged and funded. Israel Radio said an Israeli doctor examined him in Ukraine before he was airlifted out.

Writing by Dan Williams; Editing by Jeffrey Heller and Andrew Heavens

Russia says it will respond if Ukraine interests attacked


Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov accused the United States of being behind the political upheaval in Ukraine and said Moscow would respond if its interests came under attack.

Lavrov's comments came a day after U.S. Vice President Joe Biden was in the Ukrainian capital with promises of support for the pro-Western government, and a warning to Russia not to interfere in Ukraine.

The crisis in Ukraine, now in its fourth month, has dragged Russia's relations with the West to their lowest since the Cold War. In the east, pro-Russian armed separatists have seized about a dozen public buildings and are defying Kiev's authority.

A further escalation could lead to damaging economic sanctions, and raises the risk of a disruption to the Russian gas supplies on which Europe depends.

NATO says Russia has built up a force of about 40,000 troop in its border with Ukraine. Moscow says some are stationed there permanently, while others have been deployed as a precaution to protect Russia from the instability in Ukraine.

In Moscow, Lavrov said Moscow would respond if its interests, or the interests of Russian citizens, were attacked.

“Russian citizens being attacked is an attack against the Russian Federation,” he said according to excerpts of an interview with the Russia Today news channel.

“There is no reason not to believe that the Americans are running the show,” RT quoted him as saying, referring to developments in Kiev.

Russia justified its intervention in Crimea earlier this year by saying it had to defend Russians living there. In eastern Ukraine some people hold Russian passports.

ARMED GROUPS

Lavrov's ministry, in a separate statement, accused the United States and the interim government in Kiev of a “distorted interpretation” of an international accord, signed in Geneva last week, under which illegal armed groups in Ukraine are to disarm and give up buildings they have occupied.

Russia said that condition applies not only to the pro-Russian separatists in the east, but also to groups in the Ukrainian capital whose protests helped bring Ukraine's new government to power.

“Instead of taking effective measures to implement the … agreements, Kiev, Washington and a series of European capitals continue to insist that it is only Ukrainian citizens defending their rights in the south-east of Ukraine who need to give up their weapons,” a ministry statement said.

Earlier, Ukraine's government relaunched a security operation to crack down on the pro-Russian armed groups after an Easter pause and said it had the backing of the United States.

But it was unclear what steps Kiev could take to restore its authority in the mainly Russian-speaking east, without wrecking the Geneva deal.

“The security forces are working on the liquidation of illegal armed groups,” in the east of Ukraine, First Deputy Prime Minister Vitaly Yarema told reporters.

“The corresponding activities will be carried out in the near future, and you will see the results.”

The Interior Ministry said it had flushed armed separatists out of a town which they had controlled in eastern Ukraine in an “anti-terrorism” operation.

It said the operation took place on the outskirts of the town of Sviatogorsk and that no one was injured. There had been no previous reports of gunmen in the town, which lies just outside the stronghold of pro-Russian militants in Slaviansk.

Kiev's decision to resume its security operation in the east was prompted in part by the discovery of two bodies in a river in eastern Ukraine. One body was that of Volodymyr Rybak, a member of the same party as Ukraine's acting president.

AID PACKAGE

The Ukrainian government, which took power after Moscow-backed President Viktor Yanukovich fled the capital in a row over whether to strengthen ties with Europe, appeared emboldened by Biden's visit on Tuesday.

He brought a package of aid and urged Russia to curb the separatist militias in the east.

“We have obtained the support of the United States, that they will not leave us alone with an aggressor. We hope that in the event of Russian aggression, this help will be more substantive,” Yarema said.

The United States and NATO have made clear they will not intervene militarily in Ukraine. But the Pentagon said it was sending about 600 soldiers to Poland and the three Baltic states for infantry exercises, to reassure NATO allies.

Russian gas giant Gazprom has said it will turn off supplies to Ukraine next month unless Kiev pays its outstanding debts. That would have a knock-on effect on deliveries to Europe, because much of the gas shipped westwards has to pass through Ukrainian territory.

The European Commission said it would meet Slovakian and Ukrainian ministers on Thursday to discuss the possibility of pumping gas back to Kiev. The discussions will take place before another meeting between the Commission, Ukraine and Russia due on Monday on Moscow.

UNDER PRESSURE

The crisis in Ukraine began when Yanukovich, under pressure from Moscow, pulled out of a planned cooperation agreement with the EU. Pro-Western protesters took to the streets and Yanukovich fled after bloody clashes.

As a caretaker leadership of pro-Western protest leaders took over the government in Kiev, the Kremlin sent its forces into Ukraine's Crimea Peninsula, and shortly after annexed the region. Moscow said it acted to protect local people who were being persecuted by Kiev's new rulers, while the West called it an illegal land grab.

Mediators from the Organisation of Security and Cooperation in Europe, tasked with helping the sides implement the accord, were in eastern Ukraine trying to encourage illegal groups to disarm. There was no sign yet they were backing down.

In areas under the separatists' control, there was growing evidence of arbitrary rule by self-appointed local officials, backed up by heavily-armed militias, and of violence being meted out against opponents.

A video released on a local news site, gorlovka.ua, purported to show Rybak, the councilor whose body was found in a river, being confronted by an angry crowd outside the town hall in Horlivka, where he was a councilor.

In the footage, Rybak can be seen being manhandled by several men, among them a masked man in camouflage, while other people hurl abuse.

After several minutes, Rybak appears able to walk away. The Interior Ministry said he was seen being bundled into a car by masked men in camouflage later that day. His body, and that of a second man, was found on Saturday in a river near Slaviansk.

“We call…in particular on Russia to use its leverage to ensure an immediate end to kidnappings and killings in eastern Ukraine,” a spokesman for EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton said.

In nearby Slaviansk, the armed pro-Russian militia who control the city are holding three journalists, including one U.S. citizen, Simon Ostrovsky, who works for the online news site Vice News.

The United States said the detentions amounted to kidnappings which violated the Geneva agreement.

Additional reporting by Natalia Zinets and Richard Balmforth in Kiev and Nigel Stephenson and Ludmila Danilova in Moscow; Writing by Christian Lowe; Editing by Anna Willard and Giles Elgood

Ukraine peace deal falters as rebels show no sign of surrender


An agreement to avert wider conflict in Ukraine was faltering on Monday, with pro-Moscow separatist gunmen showing no sign of surrendering government buildings they have seized.

U.S. and European officials say they will hold Moscow responsible and impose new economic sanctions if the separatists do not clear out of government buildings they have occupied across swathes of eastern Ukraine over the past two weeks.

U.S. Vice President Joe Biden arrived in Kiev, where he is expected to announce a package of technical assistance. The visit is likely to be more important as a symbol of support than for any specific promises Biden makes in public.

“He will call for urgent implementation of the agreement reached in Geneva last week while also making clear … that there will be mounting costs for Russia if they choose a destabilizing rather than constructive course in the days ahead,” a senior administration official told reporters.

Russia, Ukraine, the European Union and the United States signed off on the agreement in Geneva on Thursday designed to lower tension in the worst confrontation between Russia and the West since the Cold War. The agreement calls for occupied buildings to be vacated under the auspices of envoys from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.

But no sooner had the accord been signed than both sides accused the other of breaking it, while the pro-Moscow rebels disavowed the pledge to withdraw from occupied buildings.

An OSCE mediator held his first meeting with the leader of separatists in Slaviansk, a town which rebels have turned into a heavily-fortified redoubt. Mark Etherington said he had asked the pro-Russian self-proclaimed “people's mayor” of the town, Vyacheslav Ponomaryov, whether he would comply with the Geneva agreement, but gave no hint about Ponomaryov's response.

Ponomaryov later told a news conference: “We did not negotiate, we talked. We told them our position, what happened here, and they told us about their plans.”

Etherington said he had also asked about people being held in Slaviansk, including the woman who was serving as mayor until the uprising. Her fate has not been made clear.

Separatists told Reuters they would not disarm until Right Sector, a Ukrainian nationalist group based in Western Ukraine, did so first.

“Who should surrender weapons first? Let us see Right Sector disarm first, let them make the first step and we will follow,” said Yevgeny Gordik, a member of a separatist militia. “We need dialogue. This is not dialogue. It is monologue.”

Russia says Right Sector members have threatened Russian speakers. Kiev and Western countries say the threat is largely invented by Russian state-run media to justify Moscow's intervention and cause alarm in Russian speaking areas.

Moscow blames Right Sector for a shooting on Easter Sunday morning, when at least three people were killed at a checkpoint manned by armed separatists. Right Sector denies involvement, while Kiev said Russia provoked the violence.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov described the attack as a crime, and said Kiev was failing to implement the Geneva deal. Ukrainian Foreign Minister Andriy Deshchytsia replied that his government was participating in talks led by the OSCE alongside Russian diplomats, who should have informed Lavrov of the steps Kiev was taking.

One European diplomat said the Geneva deal was a way for Russian President Vladimir Putin to buy time and undermine momentum towards tougher sanctions: “Talks and compromises are just part of his tactics,” said the diplomat. “He wants to have Ukraine.”

SOLDIERS FREE

The Slaviansk separatists released around a dozen Ukrainian soldiers in blue uniforms on Monday, without making clear the circumstances under which they had been held. Gordik said armored vehicles that were surrendered by a column of Ukrainian paratroops last week would stay in the town.

Putin overturned announced last month that Moscow has the right to intervene in its neighbors to protect Russian speakers. He then annexed Ukraine's Crimea peninsula.

Moscow has since massed tens of thousands of troops on the Ukrainian border, and Kiev and its Western allies say Russian agents are directing the uprising in the east, including the “green men” – heavily armed, masked gunmen in unmarked uniforms.

In his latest move, likely to be seen by the West as a further threat to the post-Cold War order, Putin signed a law on Monday making it easier for Russian speakers across the former Soviet Union to obtain Russian citizenship.

Eastern Ukraine is largely Russian-speaking and many residents are suspicious of the pro-European government that took power in Kiev in February when Moscow-backed President Viktor Yanukovich fled the country after mass protests.

Separatists have declared an independent “People's Republic of Donetsk” in the east's biggest province and have named themselves to official posts in towns and cities, setting up checkpoints and flying Russian flags over government buildings.

There is also some support for Ukrainian unity in the region, but pro-Kiev activists have had a lower profile since the separatists took up arms.

One activist who helped organize a unity rally in Rubizhne, a town in the eastern Luhansk region, told Ukraine's Channel 5 television that separatists attacked it, forcing the rally to disperse. Local police said a policeman was hurt when unidentified people tried to disrupt the rally.

In Luhansk itself, Interfax-Ukraine news agency quoted a man named Valery Bolotov as saying he had been elected “people's governor” of the region on Monday at a closed session of a “people's assembly” in the occupied building of the SBU state security service.

Bolotov is commander of a militant separatist movement called “the Southeast Army”. A similar move in neighboring Donetsk region earlier this month appointed a “people's governor” there.

The Ukrainian defense ministry said gunmen on motorcycles fired on an army checkpoint between Donetsk and Slaviansk shortly after dark on Sunday. The troops returned fire, wounding one attacker and capturing two, it said.

Ukraine announced an operation to retake rebel-held territory earlier this month, but that modest effort largely collapsed in disarray.

Kiev has declared an “Easter truce”, though it is far from clear it could muster any real force if it tried. The army is ill-equipped, untested and untrained for domestic operations, while the government in Kiev doubts the loyalty of the police.

The United States and EU have imposed visa bans and asset freezes on some Russians over the annexation of Crimea, measures explicitly designed not to have wider economic impact and which have been mocked as pointless by Moscow.

Washington and Brussels both say they are working on tougher measures they will impose unless Russia's allies in eastern Ukraine back down, although building a consensus is tricky in Europe where many countries rely on Russian energy exports.

The OSCE, a European security body that includes both NATO members and Russia, has so far deployed around 100 monitors and mediators in Ukraine and expects their number to rise.

An OSCE spokesman said the mediators were visiting separatist-occupied buildings with copies of last week's Geneva accord to explain it to the people inside.

“It's a mixed experience dealing with checkpoints and so forth and there is a varying reaction to teams. There is a hardened attitude in Donetsk or Slaviansk but some other areas are more accommodating,” spokesman Michael Bociurkiw said. “When teams go to smaller centers people are more willing to talk.”

Additional reporting by Natalia Zinets, Alastair Macdonald and Jeff Mason in Kiev, Dmitry Madorsky in Slaviansk, Alissa de Carbonnel in Donetsk and Vladimir Soldatkin in Moscow; writing by Peter Graff and Philippa Fletcher; editing by David Stamp

Putin in Passover greeting: Russian Jews make huge contribution


Russian Jews are making an enormous contribution to strengthening Russian society’s cohesion, President Vladimir Putin wrote in a holiday greeting to the Jewish community.

Putin sent the greeting on Monday, the news site shturem.net reported Thursday, after meeting Rabbi Berel Lazar, a chief rabbi of Russia, at the Kremlin in Moscow.

[Related: Kerry condemns anti-Semitic leaflet in eastern Ukraine]

“The Jewish community in Russia is making an enormous contribution to strengthening the ties between various peoples and religions in our country; increasing trust and mutual understanding between individuals,” Putin wrote in his greeting, which shturem.net reproduced.

Putin also wrote that the Jewish community “works to preserve stability and consensus in the general public and actively participates in the education of the younger generation as well as charity and humanitarian actions.”

At his meeting with Lazar, Putin inquired as to the situation of the 10,000 Jews living in the Crimean Peninsula, which became part of the Russian Federation after its annexation last month from neighboring Ukraine — a move that prompted an international outcry and sanctions against Russia.

Lazar, a Chabad rabbi, told Putin that the Russian branch of the movement organized seders, or Passover meals, in three Crimean cities — Simferopol, Sevastopol and Yalta — the news site col.org.il reported.

U.S. accuses Russian agents of stirring Eastern Ukraine unrest


U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry accused Russian agents and special forces on Tuesday of stirring separatist unrest in eastern Ukraine, saying Moscow could be trying to prepare for military action as it had in Crimea.

Armed pro-Moscow protesters were still occupying Ukrainian government buildings in two cities in the largely Russian-speaking east on Tuesday, although police ended a third occupation in a lightning night-time operation.

Ukraine's security service said separatists occupying the security headquarters in Luhansk had planted bombs in the building and were holding as many as 60 hostages. Activists in the building denied they had explosives or hostages, but said they had seized an armory full of automatic rifles.

The Ukraine government says the occupations that began on Sunday are part of a Russian-led plan to dismember the country. Kerry said he feared Moscow might repeat its Crimean operation.

“It is clear that Russian special forces and agents have been the catalyst behind the chaos of the last 24 hours,” he said in Washington, and this “could potentially be a contrived pretext for military intervention just as we saw in Crimea.”

Moscow annexed the Black Sea peninsula last month after a referendum staged when Russian troops were already in control.

Earlier, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov dismissed Western accusations that Moscow was destabilizing Ukraine, saying the situation could improve only if Kiev took into account the interests of Russian-speaking regions.

Russia, Ukraine, the United States and the European Union will hold a ministerial meeting next week to discuss the Ukraine crisis, the EU said on Tuesday.

The meeting, to be held at a still unspecified location in Europe, will involve Kerry, Lavrov, EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton and Ukraine's foreign minister, Andriy Deshchytsia.

The U.S. State Department said Kerry and Lavrov in a phone call on Monday discussed convening direct talks among the parties to try to defuse tensions.

PROTESTERS DEMAND REFERENDUM

Shots were fired, a grenade thrown and 70 people detained as Ukrainian officers ended the occupation in the city of Kharkiv during an 18-minute “anti-terrorism” action, the Interior Ministry said.

But elsewhere in Ukraine's eastern industrial heartland, activists armed with Kalashnikov rifles and protected by barbed-wire barricades vowed there was no going back on their demand for a vote on returning to Moscow rule.

In the city of Luhansk, a man dressed in camouflage told a crowd outside the occupied state security building: “We want a referendum on the status of Luhansk and we want Russian returned as an official language.”

The Kremlin's standoff with the West has knocked investors' confidence in the Russian economy, and the International Monetary Fund on Tuesday cut its forecast of growth this year to

1.3 percent, less than half the 3 percent it had originally projected.

Britain expressed fears that Russia wanted to disrupt the run-up to presidential elections next month in Ukraine, which has been ruled by an interim government since the overthrow of Moscow-backed President Viktor Yanukovich in February.

Ukraine, which was controlled by Moscow until the Soviet Union collapsed more than two decades ago, has been in turmoil since late last year when Yanukovich rejected closer relations with the European Union and tilted the country back toward Russia. That provoked mass protests in which more than 100 people were killed by police and which drove Yanukovich from office, leading to Kiev's loss of control in Crimea.

In Kiev, Interior Minister Arsen Avakov partly pinned responsibility for the Kharkiv occupation on Russian President Vladimir Putin. “All this was inspired and financed by the Putin-Yanukovich group,” he said.

An aide said police went in when the protesters failed to give themselves up and surrender their arms. Officers did not open fire, despite shooting and the grenade attack from the other side, he said. One police officer was badly wounded and some others less seriously hurt.

In Luhansk, a city of about 450,000, protesters have blocked streets leading to the state security building with barbed wire, tires, crates, metal police barriers and sandbags.

Andrei, who said he had stormed the building on Sunday but would not give his family name, said the protesters had 200 to 300 Kalashnikovs and some stun grenades, but there had been no shooting so far.

“Once you've taken up arms, there's no turning back. We will stay until the authorities agree to hold a referendum on the status of Luhansk,” he said.

A standoff also continued in the mining center of Donetsk, Yanukovich's home base, where a group of pro-Russian deputies inside the main regional authority building on Monday declared a separatist republic.

Unlike in Kharkiv, there was no clear sign that further police operations were imminent in the other two cities. “We hope the buildings occupied in Donetsk and Luhansk will soon be freed,” acting President Oleksander Turchinov said.

Russia has warned Kiev against using force to end the occupations, but authorities may have decided not to give Moscow an excuse to intervene, holding back in the hope that the protests will fizzle out.

MASS DISORDER

In London, British Foreign Secretary William Hague said the occupations bore “all the hallmarks of a Russian strategy to destabilize Ukraine.

The West has expressed concern about what it says has been a buildup of Russian forces along the border with Ukraine. Moscow has said the troops are merely taking part in exercises, but NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen urged caution.

“If Russia were to intervene further in Ukraine it would be a historic mistake,” he told a news conference in Paris. “It would have grave consequences for our relationship with Russia and would further isolate Russia internationally.”

Ukraine's ambassador to NATO, Ihor Dolhov, said on Tuesday that Kiev was counting on the United States and other NATO members to supply equipment ranging from uniforms to aircraft fuel, but was not asking for weapons.

Lavrov denied responsibility for the trouble in Russian-speaking areas of Ukraine. “One should not seek to put the blame on someone else,” he told a news conference in Moscow.

Unlike in Crimea, where ethnic Russians form a majority, most people in the east and south are ethnically Ukrainian, although they speak Russian as a first language.

Putin will meet his senior officials on Wednesday to discuss economic ties with Ukraine, including on energy, his spokesman said. He gave no details, but the Crimea dispute has raised fears Russia might cut off gas supplies to Ukraine's crippled economy, having nearly doubled the price it charges Kiev.

Kiev missed a midnight deadline to reduce its $2.2 billion gas debt to Russia, although producer Gazprom did not say whether it would take any action against Kiev.

In Brussels, Ukraine's energy minister, EU officials and industry representatives discussed how to reduce reliance on Russian gas.

An EU diplomat said the 28-nation body planned to set up a support group to help Ukraine stabilize its precarious economy and political situation.

Additional reporting by Gabriela Baczynska, Jason Bush, Lidia Kelly, Vladimir Soldatkin and Denis Pinchuk in Moscow; William James and Kylie MacLellan in London, Barbara Lewis and Adrian Croft in Brussels and John Irish in Paris; Writing by Richard Balmforth, David Stamp and Peter Cooney; Editing by Giles Elgood and Lisa Shumaker

Kosher nightclub to open in Moscow


A Russian Jewish group is preparing to open a kosher nightclub in the center of Moscow.

The opening of the Shachar Club is slated for Saturday, the Russian-language Israeli news site izrus.co.il reported Tuesday.

“Jewish youth in Moscow should have somewhere with an easy, relaxed atmosphere to hang out, discuss their identity or just have fun,” a co-founder of the new club, Ilya Lipetsker, told Izrus.

Lipetsker said he hoped the club would help unite young Jews from different backgrounds.

The club will only offer kosher food and drink, Izrus reported. Organizers wrote on Facebook that the new club will not be open on Shabbat.

Lipetsker helped establish the club with Alexander Kargin, who heads a group called Shachar that organizes activities for the Jewish community, mostly with a pro-Israel aspect.

He said the new club is meant to expose Muscovites to “a slice of the Tel Aviv nightlife and thus allow Moscow Jews to immerse themselves in that scene.”

Shachar has organized rallies in Russia to express solidarity with Israel, including during the 2011 Pillar of Defense operation in Gaza.

Moscow is home to approximately 100,000 Jews, according to the European Jewish Congress.

Chief Russian rabbi slams Ukrainian Jews for criticizing Putin


Berel Lazar, a chief rabbi of Russia, criticized Ukrainian Jewish leaders who condemned Moscow’s actions in Ukraine.

“The Jewish community should not be the one sending messages to President Barack Obama about his policy or to President Putin or to any other leader,” Lazar said Monday during a joint interview with JTA and The Jewish Chronicle of London. “I think it’s the wrong attitude.”

Lazar, Chabad’s top figure in Russia, was responding to a question about a March 5 letter to the Russian president from the Association of Jewish Communities and Organizations of Ukraine, or VAAD, following the incursion of Russian troops into the the Crimean peninsula.

“Your policy of inciting separatism and crude pressure placed on Ukraine threatens us and all Ukrainian people,” the letter said.

Lazar criticized the Ukrainians for involving themselves in issues that don’t directly concern the Jewish community. At the same time, Lazar said he was concerned about anti-Semitism in Ukraine under its interim government, which was one of the reasons Putin gave as justification for the troop mobilization.

Many Ukrainian Jews and several Ukrainian Jewish leaders supported the revolution that ousted former President Viktor Yanukovych despite the prominent role played in the uprising by leaders of the ultranationalist Svoboda party. Svoboda’s leader and other prominent party figures have a history of making anti-Semitic statements. Other Ukrainian Jews saw the revolution as dangerous.

Several anti-Semitic attacks occurred during the unrest, including two stabbings in Kiev, a few assaults of religious Jews by street thugs, an act of vandalism at a Crimean synagogue and the attempted torching of another synagogue. Anti-Semitic violence is typically rare in Ukraine.

On March 3, Putin said the revolution was being led by “anti-Semites and neo-Nazis on a rampage.”

No suspects have been arrested in connection with the attacks, but Rabbi Yaakov Dov Bleich, a chief Ukrainian rabbi, said pro-Russian provocateurs may have staged them.

Asked about the possibility of provocations, Lazar told JTA he was uncertain, but added: “In the last 15 years I’ve never seen in Russia anything similar. And sadly, in Ukraine and in certain parts of Ukraine especially, there is a history of anti-Semitism.”

Lazar suggested Ukrainian Jewish leaders did not feel free to decry anti-Semitic acts there. “There is concern about it but [Ukrainian Jewish leaders] are trying to sort of wait out and hope” ahead of Ukraine’s May elections.

Vyacheslav Likhachev, a VAAD spokesperson, said it was Lazar, not Ukrainian Jewish leaders, who could not speak freely.

“When Lazar speaks, it is as a person holding an official position, that of a religious leader in contemporary Russia and as such, it is impossible for him or any other person in his position to express views that do not align with the Kremlin’s official line and propaganda,” Likhachev said.

Longtime Washington power broker Robert Strauss dies at 95


Robert Strauss, who once headed the Democratic National Committee, served as U.S. trade representative and ambassador to Moscow, and advised presidents from both parties, died in Washington on Wednesday at age 95.

“We can confirm that Robert Strauss passed away peacefully on March 19,” the law firm he helped found, Akin Gump Strauss Hauer and Feld, said in a statement.

Strauss died of natural causes at his home in Washington, the Dallas Morning News reported.

Considered one of Washington's master power brokers, the colorful Texas-born Strauss was known as “Mr. Democrat.” But in an era when Washington was less polarized, Strauss easily crossed partisan lines and wielded influence in law, government and politics under a succession of presidential administrations.

“He is absolutely the most amazing politician,” former first lady Barbara Bush wrote of Strauss. “He is everybody's friend and, if he chooses, could sell you the paper off your own wall.”

Born on Oct. 19, 1918 in Lockhart, Texas, the son of a dry-goods merchant, Strauss went to the University of Texas where he befriended future Texas Governor John Connally and worked on Lyndon Johnson's first run for Congress in 1937.

After graduation, he joined the FBI in 1941, where his job was “watching out for Communists,” he told the New York Times in a 1991 interview.

Strauss left the FBI several years later, becoming a successful Dallas lawyer and businessman.

After helping Connally win the Texas governorship in 1962, Strauss became involved in the national Democratic Party organization and served as its treasurer from 1970 to 1972.

Looking to recover from George McGovern's landslide presidential defeat in 1972 at the hands of Republican President Richard Nixon, the Democrats turned to Strauss, a centrist with close ties to the party establishment, as national chairman, a post he held until 1977.

During Strauss' tenure, Democrat Jimmy Carter won the White House in 1976. He named Strauss as U.S. trade representative and later a special Middle East envoy.

MOVER AND SHAKER

Strauss returned to his law practice after helping run Carter's unsuccessful bid for re-election in 1980. But even under the Republican presidencies of Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, Strauss remained a key player in Washington, moving freely in Democratic and Republican circles and forming close friendships on both sides of the political aisle.

He held advisory posts under Reagan and was named U.S. ambassador to Moscow by Bush in 1991, months before the Soviet Union's collapse. Strauss remained in Moscow through 1992 as ambassador to Russia.

Strauss told the Dallas Morning News in 1993 he had no regrets after his decades as a political mover and shaker.

“I like the whole damn deal,” he said.

Reporting by Peter Cooney; Additional reporting by Sharon Bernstein in Sacramento; Editing by Lisa Shumaker

Ukraine appeals to West as Crimea turns to Russia


Ukraine's government appealed for Western help on Tuesday to stop Moscow annexing Crimea but the Black Sea peninsula, overrun by Russian troops, seemed fixed on a course that could formalize rule from Moscow within days.

With their own troops in Crimea effectively prisoners in their bases, the new authorities in Kiev painted a sorry picture of the military bequeathed them by the pro-Moscow president overthrown two weeks ago. They announced the raising of a new National Guard to be drawn from volunteers among veterans.

The prime minister, heading for talks at the White House and United Nations, told parliament in Kiev he wanted the United States and Britain, as guarantors of a 1994 treaty that saw Ukraine give up its Soviet nuclear weapons, to intervene both diplomatically and militarily to fend off Russian “aggression”.

But despite NATO reconnaissance aircraft patrolling the Polish and Romanian borders and U.S. naval forces preparing for exercises in the Black Sea, Western powers have made clear that, as when ex-Soviet Georgia lost territory in fighting in 2008, they have no appetite for risking turning the worst East-West crisis since the Cold War into a military conflict with Moscow.

Diplomacy seemed restricted to a war of words. The U.S. and Russian foreign ministers did speak by telephone. But the U.S. State Department said Moscow's position offered no room for negotiation and the Russian Foreign Ministry issued a statement condemning U.S. financial aid to the “illegitimate regime” in Kiev, which it calls ultra-nationalists with “Nazi” links.

That language echoed ousted Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovich, who gave a news conference in Russia insisting that he was still the legitimate head of state. Toppled by protests sparked by his rejection of closer ties with the European Union in favor of a deal from Russian President Vladimir Putin, Yanukovich blamed his enemies for provoking Crimean secession.

Parliament in Kiev, whose position is backed by Western governments, dismisses plans for a referendum on Sunday to unite the region with Russia as illegitimate and resolved on Tuesday to dissolve Crimea's regional assembly if by Wednesday it had not scrapped the plebiscite. There seems no chance that it will.

Moscow, which to widespread scorn denies its troops have any role in the takeover of the once Russian-ruled region, says people in Crimea, a small majority of whom are ethnic Russians, should have the right to secede. It has made much of anti-Russian sentiment among some Ukrainian nationalists – though many native Russian speakers in Ukraine are wary of Putin.

SANCTIONS, REFERENDUM

U.S. lawmakers are preparing sanctions against Russia and European Union leaders could impose penalties, such as bans on visas for key officials, as early as Monday.

By then, however, Crimea could already have voted – in a referendum not recognized by Kiev or the West – to seek union with Russia. The ballot paper offers no option to retain the status quo of autonomy within Ukraine.

Voters among the two million population must choose either direct union with Moscow or restoring an old constitution that made Crimea sovereign with ties to Ukraine. On Tuesday, the regional assembly passed a resolution that a sovereign Crimea would sever links to Kiev and join Russia anyway.

The Russian parliament has already approved the accession in principle of Crimea, which was handed to Ukraine by Soviet rulers 60 years ago. Still, it is not clear whether or how soon Putin would formalize such a union as he engages in a complex confrontation with the West for geostrategic advantage.

In disputes with Georgia, Russia has granted recognition to small breakaway states on its borders, a process critics view as annexation in all but name. It fiercely criticized Western recognition of the independence of Kosovo from its ally Serbia – a process which Crimea's parliament nonetheless cited as a legal precedent for its own forthcoming declaration of independence.

There seems little chance that Crimea's new leaders, who emerged after Yanukovich's overthrow as Russian-backed forces took control of the peninsula, will fail to get the result they want. A boycott by ethnic Tatars, 12 percent of the regional population and deeply wary after centuries of persecution by Moscow, will have little effect as there is no minimum turnout.

In Sevastopol, the Crimean home port of Russia's Black Sea Fleet, Valery Medvedev, the chairman of the city's electoral commission, made no pretence at concealing his own preference:

“We're living through historic times. Sevastopol would love to fulfil its dream of joining Russia. I want to be part of Russia and I'm not embarrassed to say that,” he told reporters.

There is little sign of campaigning by those opposed to the government line. Billboards in Sevastopol urge people to vote and offer a choice of two images of Crimea – one in the colors of the Russian flag, the other emblazoned with a swastika.

UKRAINIAN TROOPS

It is unclear whether thousands of Ukrainian servicemen, many of whom are native Crimeans but are effectively trapped on their bases and ships by Russian troops and local militia allies, will take part in the referendum.

One sailor, who declined to be named, said he would only vote if he got the order from his commander to do so, a position echoed by many other servicemen spoken to by Reuters. They all said they would vote for Crimea to remain part of Ukraine.

Elena Prokhina, an ethnic Russian planning to vote for union with Moscow, said she feared the referendum could lead to conflict with others in Ukraine, notably nationalists in the Ukrainian-speaking west of the country of 46 million.

“Knowing what I know about the fanaticism of the western Ukrainians, we will have to defend our rights after the referendum,” she said. “They won't just let us leave.”

Around Sevastopol, Ukrainian military facilities remained under virtual siege on Tuesday. At an air defense base outside Sevastopol, dozens of men who looked like Russian soldiers were camping outside the gate, while an armed Ukrainian serviceman could be seen pacing the base's roof keeping a wary eye on them.

In the port, two Ukrainian warships remained on alert but unable to set sail because of Russian vessels and a cable strung across the harbor by Russian forces. Relatives of the sailors come to the dockside every day to converse and provide food.

A Ukrainian officer said there was a fragile understanding between the two fleets not to escalate the situation, but he said nerves were frayed: “The Russians have not troubled us until now,” he said. “But all it takes is one order and they will open fire. We won't be able to hold out long”.

CALL FOR HELP

In parliament, the acting defense minister said that of some 41,000 infantry mobilized last week, Ukraine could field only about 6,000 combat-ready troops, compared to over 200,000 Russians deployed on the country's eastern borders. The prime minister said the air force was outnumbered 100 to one.

Acting president Oleksander Turchinov warned against provoking Russia, saying that would play into Moscow's hands, as he announced plans to mobilize a National Guard, though he gave little detail of its size or expected functions.

Prime Minister Arseny Yatseniuk, who will visit the White House and United Nations Security Council this week, said the 1994 treaty under which Ukraine agreed to give up its Soviet nuclear weapons obliged Russia to remove troops from Crimea and also meant Western powers should defend Ukraine's sovereignty.

“What does the current military aggression of the Russian Federation on Ukrainian territory mean?” he said.

“It means that a country which voluntarily gave up nuclear weapons, rejected nuclear status and received guarantees from the world's leading countries is left defenseless and alone in the face of a nuclear state that is armed to the teeth.

“I say this to our Western partners: if you do not provide guarantees, which were signed in the Budapest Memorandum, then explain how you will persuade Iran or North Korea to give up their status as nuclear states.”

Parliament passed a resolution he had proposed calling on the United States and Britain, co-signatories with Russia of that treaty to “fulfil their obligations … and take all possible diplomatic, political, economic and military measures urgently to end the aggression and preserve the independence, sovereignty and existing borders of Ukraine”.

But Western powers have been careful to note that Ukraine, not being a member of NATO, has no automatic claim on their help and Ukrainian officials gave no details on what they hoped for. The wording of the 1994 treaty indicates that help is only required if Ukraine is threatened by a nuclear attack.

Additional reporting by Natalia Zinets, Pavel Polityuk, Richard Balmforth and Ron Popeski in Kiev; Writing by Alastair Macdonald; Editing by Peter Graff

Putin’s Jewish embrace: Is it love or politics?


When even Russian policemen had to pass security checks to enter the Sochi Winter Olympics, Rabbi Berel Lazar was waved in without ever showing his ID.

Lazar, a Chabad-affiliated chief rabbi of Russia, was invited to the opening ceremony of the games last month by President Vladimir Putin’s office. But since the event was on Shabbat, Lazar initially declined the invitation, explaining he was prevented from carrying documents, among other religious restrictions.

So Putin ordered his staff to prepare an alternative entrance and security-free route just for the rabbi, according to one of Lazar’s top associates, Rabbi Boruch Gorin.

“It is unusual, but the security detail acted like kosher supervisors so Rabbi Lazar could attend,” Gorin said.

To him, the Sochi anecdote illustrates Putin’s positive attitude toward Russian Jewry — an attitude Gorin says is sincere, unprecedented in Russian history and hugely beneficial for Jewish life in the country.

Others, however, see more cynical motives behind Putin’s embrace of Russian Jewry.

“Putin has been facing international criticism for a long time now over human rights issues,” said Roman Bronfman, a former Israeli Knesset member who was born in the Soviet Union. “He needs a shield, and that’s the Jews. His warm relations with Russia’s so-called official Jews are instrumental.”

In recent weeks, Putin has positioned himself as a defender of Jews as part of his effort to discredit the revolution that ousted his ally, former Ukraine President Viktor Yanukovych. During a March 4 news conference, Putin called the anti-Yanukovych protesters “reactionary, nationalist and anti-Semitic forces.”

While right-wing Ukrainian factions — including some that have embraced anti-Semitic rhetoric in the past — played a prominent role in the opposition movement, Ukrainian Jewish leaders have sharply disputed Putin’s characterization and condemned Russian incursions into Crimea. Some individual Jews, however, have told JTA that they agree with Putin’s analysis and welcomed the intervention by Russia.

Few would dispute that Putin has been friendly to Jewish institutional life in Russia — especially to organizations and leaders that belong to the Chabad Hasidic movement.

Gorin, a Chabad rabbi and chairman of Moscow’s $50 million Jewish Museum and Tolerance Center, credits Putin personally for providing state funding for the institution, which opened in 2012. Putin also donated a month’s wages to the museum.

“Putin has facilitated the opening of synagogues and Jewish community centers across Russia, at the Jewish community’s request. This has had a profound effect on Jewish life, especially outside Moscow,” Gorin said. “He instituted annual meetings with Jewish community leaders and attends community events. His friendship with the Jewish community has given it much prestige and set the tone for local leaders.”

Putin’s relationship with the Jewish community is consistent with his larger strategy for governing Russia. His brand of Russian nationalism extends beyond just ethnic Russians to include the country’s many minorities. Putin has carefully cultivated relationships with Russia’s many subgroups and regions as a means of projecting his government’s authority.

Mikhail Chlenov, secretary general of the Euro-Asian Jewish Congress, says Putin’s pro-Jewish tendencies are part of the reason that anti-Semitic incidents are relatively rare in Russia. In 2013, the Russian Jewish Congress documented only 10 anti-Jewish attacks and acts of vandalism, compared to dozens in France.

Under Putin, harsh laws have led to a crackdown on ultranationalist groups that once had flourished in Russia. At the same time, anti-extremism legislation has been used as well to prosecute political protesters, including the punk rock collective Pussy Riot.

Some Russian Jews recoil at Putin’s authoritarian tendencies. Freedom of expression has been severely restricted and politically motivated prosecutions remain widespread under Putin, according to Amnesty International’s 2013 report on Russia.

“Putin may be good for Jews, but he’s bad for Russia,” said Michael Edelstein, a lecturer at Moscow State University and a journalist for the L’chaim Jewish newspaper.

Putin traces his earliest connection to Judaism back to his early childhood in Leningrad, now St. Petersburg, when he befriended a Jewish family that lived in his apartment block. In his 2000 autobiography, Putin wrote that the unnamed family loved him and that he used to seek its company.

“They were observant Jews who did not work on Saturdays and the man would study the Bible and Talmud all day long,” Putin wrote. “Once I even asked him what he was muttering. He explained to me what this book was and I was immediately interested.”

Another influential Jewish figure for Putin was his wrestling coach, Anatoly Rakhlin, who sparked the young Putin’s interest in sports and got him off the rough streets of Leningrad, where Putin would get into fights while his parents worked. At Rakhlin’s funeral last year, Putin, reportedly overcome by emotion, ditched his security detail and went on a short, solitary walk.

Bronfman calls Putin’s childhood accounts “a smokescreen” and likens them to the Russian leader’s friendly gestures toward Israel, which he last visited in 2012.

Putin, who already led Russia to sign a visa waiver program with Israel in 2008, said during his visit to Israel that he “would not let a million Russians live under threat,” referring sympathetically to the regional dangers facing Israel and its Russian-speaking immigrant population. But at the same time Russia has criticized European sanctions on Iran, a major Russian trading partner, and negotiated the sale of the advanced S-300 air defense system to Syria.

“It’s all pragmatic with Putin,” Bronfman said. “He says he regards the million Russian speakers living in Israel as a bridge connecting Russia to Israel, but when it comes to Russian interests in Syria or Iran, this friendship counts for very little.”

In Israel, Putin received a guided tour of the Western Wall from Lazar, who joined Putin’s entourage — vividly illustrating the president’s close ties to the Russian branch of the Chabad movement.

Zvi Gitelman, a professor of Judaic studies at the University of Michigan who studies the relationship between ethnicity and politics in the former Soviet Union, said the relationship between Putin and the Chabad organization in Russia is one of mutual convenience.

Shortly after taking office, the Putin government clashed with several prominent Jewish business moguls, including Vladimir Gusinsky and Boris Berezovsky, both of whom went into self-imposed exile.

“When he went after these oligarchs, Putin sensed that this could be interpreted as anti-Semitism,” Gitelman said. “He immediately, publicly, demonstratively and dramatically embraced Chabad.”

Chabad, meanwhile, has expanded throughout Russia.

“Chabad, with the help of Putin, is now the dominant religious expression of Judaism in a mostly nonreligious population,” Gitelman said.

Putin has not been shy about using his good relations with Chabad to his advantage.

Last year, he moved a collection of books known as the Schneerson Library into Gorin’s Jewish museum in an attempt to defuse a battle with the global Chabad movement.

Chabad’s New York-based leaders had demanded the library’s return, which had belonged to one of its previous grand rabbis, but Russia has refused to surrender it. The compromise was rejected by the Hasidic movement’s headquarters but defended by its Russian branch.

“Putin’s suggestion came as a surprise to us, and not a very pleasant one,” Gorin recalled. “We very much wanted to stay out of the dispute.” But, he added, “when the president of Russia makes a suggestion, it is usually accepted.”

Other Jewish groups, however, have had less cozy relations with the Putin government.

In 2005, Rabbi Pinchas Goldschmidt, the chief rabbi of Moscow, was suddenly denied entry into Russia for several weeks before he was allowed back into the country, where he has resided since 1989. No official explanation was given, but it was rumored that his banning was part of a power struggle that saw Chabad-affiliated rabbis emerge on top.

Goldschmidt declined to comment on his brief exile, saying “Google has the whole story.”

The preferential treatment of Chabad by Putin’s government “is creating a monolithic Jewish institutional life and preventing grass-roots development, which is the real key for Jewish rejuvenation,” said Michael Oshtrakh, a leader of the Jewish community of Yekaterinburg.

Putin rebuffs Obama as Ukraine crisis escalates


President Vladimir Putin rebuffed a warning from U.S. President Barack Obama over Moscow's military intervention in Crimea, saying on Friday that Russia could not ignore calls for help from Russian speakers in Ukraine.

After an hour-long telephone call, Putin said in a statement that Moscow and Washington were still far apart on the situation in the former Soviet republic, where he said the new authorities had taken “absolutely illegitimate decisions on the eastern, southeastern and Crimea regions.

“Russia cannot ignore calls for help and it acts accordingly, in full compliance with international law,” Putin said.

Ukraine's border guards said Moscow had poured troops into the southern peninsula where Russian forces have seized control.

Serhiy Astakhov, an aide to the border guards' commander, said there were now 30,000 Russian soldiers in Crimea, compared to the 11,000 permanently based with the Russian Black Sea fleet in the port of Sevastopol before the crisis.

Putin denies that the forces with no national insignia that are surrounding Ukrainian troops in their bases are under Moscow's command, although their vehicles have Russian military plates. The West has ridiculed his assertion.

The most serious east-west confrontation since the end of the Cold War – resulting from the overthrow last month of President Viktor Yanukovich after violent protests in Kiev – escalated on Thursday when Crimea's parliament, dominated by ethnic Russians, voted to join Russia. The region's government set a referendum for March 16 – in just nine days' time.

European Union leaders and Obama denounced the referendum as illegitimate, saying it would violate Ukraine's constitution.

The head of Russia's upper house of parliament said after meeting visiting Crimean lawmakers on Friday that Crimea had a right to self-determination, and ruled out any risk of war between “the two brotherly nations”.

Obama announced the first sanctions against Russia on Thursday since the start of the crisis, ordering visa bans and asset freezes against so far unidentified people deemed responsible for threatening Ukraine's sovereignty. Russia warned that it would retaliate against any sanctions.

Japan endorsed the Western position that the actions of Russia, whose forces have seized control of the Crimean peninsula, constitute “a threat to international peace and security”, after Obama spoke to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

China, often a Russian ally in blocking Western moves in the U.N. Security Council, was more cautious, saying that economic sanctions were not the best way to solve the crisis and avoiding comment on the legality of a Crimean referendum on secession.

GUERRILLA WAR?

The EU, Russia's biggest economic partner and energy customer, adopted a three-stage plan to try to force a negotiated solution but stopped short of immediate sanctions.

The Russian Foreign Ministry responded angrily on Friday, calling the EU decision to freeze talks on visa-free travel and on a broad new pact governing Russia-EU ties “extremely unconstructive”.

Senior Ukrainian opposition politician Yulia Tymoshenko, freed from prison after Yanukovich's ouster, met German Chancellor Angela Merkel in Dublin and appealed for immediate EU sanctions against Russia, warning that Crimea might otherwise slide into a guerrilla war.

Brussels and Washington rushed to strengthen the new authorities in economically shattered Ukraine, announcing both political and financial assistance. The regional director of the International Monetary Fund said talks with Kiev on a loan agreement were going well and praised the new government's openness to economic reform and transparency.

The European Commission has said Ukraine could receive up to 11 billion euros ($15 billion) in the next couple of years provided it reaches agreement with the IMF, which requires painful economic reforms like ending gas subsidies.

Promises of billions of dollars in Western aid for the Kiev government, and the perception that Russian troops are not likely to go beyond Crimea into other parts of Ukraine, have helped reverse a rout in the local hryvnia currency.

In the past two days it has traded above 9.0 to the dollar for the first time since the Crimea crisis began last week. Local dealers said emergency currency restrictions imposed last week were also supporting the hryvnia.

Russian gas monopoly Gazprom said Ukraine had not paid its $440 million gas bill for February, bringing its arrears to $1.89 billion and hinted it could turn off the taps as it did in 2009, when a halt in Russian deliveries to Ukraine reduced supplies to Europe during a cold snap.

In Moscow, a huge crowd gathered near the Kremlin at a government-sanctioned rally and concert billed as being “in support of the Crimean people”.

Pop stars took to the stage and demonstrators held signs with slogans such as “Crimea is Russian land”, “We don't trade our people for money” and “We believe in Putin”.

IMPORTANT DIFFERENCES

Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseny Yatseniuk said no one in the civilized world would recognize the result of the “so-called referendum” in Crimea.

He repeated Kiev's willingness to negotiate with Russia if Moscow pulls its additional troops out of Crimea and said he had requested a telephone call with Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev.

But Putin's spokesman Dmitry Peskov ridiculed calls for Russia to join an international “contact group” with Ukraine proposed by the West to negotiate an end to the crisis, saying they “make us smile”, Russian news agencies reported.

Despite the Kremlin's tough words, demonstrators who have remained encamped in Kiev's central Independence Square to defend the revolution that ousted Yanukovich said they did not believe Crimea would be allowed to secede.

Alexander Zaporozhets, 40, from central Ukraine's Kirovograd region, put his faith in international pressure.

“I don't think the Russians will be allowed to take Crimea from us: you can't behave like that to an independent state. We have the support of the whole world. But I think we are losing time. While the Russians are preparing, we are just talking.”

Unarmed military observers from the pan-European Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe were blocked from entering Crimea for a second day in a row on Friday, the OSCE said on Twitter.

A U.N. special envoy who traveled to the regional capital Simferopol was surrounded by pro-Russian protesters and forced to leave on Wednesday. The United Nations said it had sent its assistant secretary-general for human rights, Ivan Simonovic, to Kiev to conduct a preliminary humans rights assessment.

Ukrainian television was switched off in Crimea on Thursday and replaced with Russian state channels. The streets largely belong to people who support Moscow's rule, some of whom have become increasingly aggressive in the past week, harassing journalists and occasional pro-Kiev protesters.

Part of the Crimea's 2 million population opposes Moscow's rule, including members of the region's ethnic Russian majority. The last time Crimeans were asked, in 1991, they voted narrowly for independence along with the rest of Ukraine.

“This announcement that we are already part of Russia provokes nothing but tears,” said Tatyana, 41, an ethnic Russian. “With all these soldiers here, it is like we are living in a zoo. Everyone fully understands this is an occupation.”

Additional reporting by Steve Gutterman in Moscow, Luke Baker and Martin Santa in Brussels, Steve Holland and Jeff Mason in Washington, Lina Kushch in Donetsk and Pavel Polityuk in Kiev; Writing by Paul Taylor; Editing by Giles Elgood and Philippa Fletcher