White House aide Ezra Cohen-Watnick reportedly leaked sensitive information to House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence Chairman Representative Devin Nunes (R-Calif.), above. Cohen-Watnick's wife worked on behalf of Russia. Photo by Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

Wife of key Trump aide worked to make Putin’s Russia look good in the West 


In the rush to connect the dots between the Trump Administration and Russian President Vladimir Putin, a Jewish wedding provided the latest purported link.

Specifically, it’s the Jewish wedding of Ezra Cohen-Watnick, the White House aide whom the New York Times identified as having leaked sensitive intelligence to a high-ranking Republican congressman in March. New information suggests Cohen-Watnick’s wife worked on behalf of the Russian government as a Washington D.C-based public relations specialist before they married.

In November, the 30-year-old Trump aide celebrated his upcoming wedding with Rebecca Miller, a content executive at the multinational public-relations firm Ketchum, which was retained until 2015 by the Russian government. While at Ketchum, Miller reportedly worked to “make Russia look better.”

The information comes from an oral history interview of Miller’s mother, Vicki Fraser, by the State Historical Society of Missouri in August 2014 (Fraser was born in St. Louis).

“Her big challenges right now are Ketchum is responsible for providing PR and marketing to try to make Russia look better,” Fraser told the interviewer of her daughter, “which is particularly difficult when they’re invading other countries and when Putin is somewhat out of control.”

The interview was discovered by E. Randol Schoenberg, a Los Angeles-based attorney and genealogy who made a name and fortune by recovering some $300 million worth of paintings pilfered by Nazis in Vienna in a landmark case in 2006.

On his blog, Schoenberg wrote that he and a fellow genealogist managed to uncover family details about Cohen-Watnick that led to the find.

Cohen-Watnick, the National Security Council senior director for intelligence, reportedly provided California Congressman Devin Nunes, chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, with information suggesting President Donald Trump was swept up in surveillance by American intelligence agencies.

The leak is particularly significant because it led to a breakdown in the intelligence committee’s investigation of ties between Trump associates and Russia. In addition, after the source of the leak was revealed, National Security Advisor Lt. Gen. H. R. McMaster reportedly sought the aide’s firing, but Trump intervened personally to save Cohen-Watnick’s job.

Ohr Kodesh Congregation, a Conservative synagogue outside Washington D.C., announced Cohen-Watnick and Miller’s aufruf, the Shabbat celebration that precedes an observant wedding, in November.

U.S. President Donald Trump (L-R), joined by Chief of Staff Reince Priebus, Vice President Mike Pence, speaks by phone with Russia's President Vladimir Putin in the Oval Office. Photo courtesy of REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst.

On Putin, Trump and Masculinity


Something about Russian President Vladimir Putin vexes the Left.  More than any other world leader, many liberals identify Mr. Putin as irredeemable.  So bad is he, they argue, that President Trump lacks moral standing for expressing a willingness to work with the Russian leader.

The Left senses a commonality between Putin and Trump.  They sense a connection of significance, much more than the diplomatic chit chat of General Kelly and Russian officials.  To the left, something deeper is going on, something sinister.   

As a conservative who tries to understand the liberal thought process, I have sought  an explanation that allows one to see Putin as incorrigible, yet celebrates rapprochement with murderers who have killed myriads of their citizens, namely the Mullahs of Iran.     

Mr. Putin has a bad reputation; my goal is not to defend him.  Journalists who have written against him have been killed; opposition party officials have been harassed; he regularly battles neighbors who don’t adore his Russia-centric vision.  His foreign policy is amoral, as well.  In Syria, Putin’s support of Bashar al Assad, a dictator who murdered hundreds of thousands of civilians, was seemingly fashioned with the goal of making himself a player on the world stage; the destruction of a country as the means to his ignoble end.     

Yet, at the same time, Russia itself is largely a free country.  Its citizens are free to travel.  They are not brutalized and imprisoned for holding contrary opinions.  Individual freedom is strong.  Both Judaism and Christianity are flourishing.  Putin takes religion seriously and is wildly popular. Putin has won elections by wide margins and continues to win them, overwhelmingly.   

Since 1979, the Iranian regime has killed and imprisoned large swaths of its population it deems a threat to the Islamic power structure.  Since 1985, it has supported Hezbollah, which has killed many thousands more.  Iran is the world’s greatest financier of terror.   Iran’s leaders regularly call for the destruction of Israel and America.  When, in 2009, a “Green” democracy movement started, Iran’s leaders crushed it with brutal force.  Hundreds were killed and jailed.   

Is Putin uniquely bad?  Why was President Obama’s dance with Iran considered brave, yet President Trump’s accommodation with Russia defined as evil?

Jewish tradition says that there are two forms of human experience, the masculine and the feminine.  Everything humanity does flows from one of these two forces.  Perfection is reached when these two forces merge; the coming together of masculine and feminine creates life, and allows mankind to touch eternity.    

Nonetheless, in the world at large, masculine and feminine forces are distinct.  Power and control are masculine expressions.  Sensitivity and understanding are feminine values.  A nation’s borders and rules are its masculinity.  Its welcoming and generosity to the outsider are its feminine character.

The conservative mind seeks a masculine structure first and feminine magnanimity second.  First there must be language, borders and a unique culture, and then we can allow in anyone who wants to become part of the fabric of this nation.  

To the Liberal mind, expressions of masculinity are negative.  Anything that sets borders and limitation, anything that values discipline over desire, is wrong.   Every want is good and should be validated.  When there is no absolute good and evil, there is only what feels good and what feels bad.  Discipline feels bad, desire feels good, and that has become the foundation of Leftist values.   

When I grew up in Orthodox Jewish Brooklyn, masculine role models were not strongmen.  They were thoughtful scholars who earned the trust of the community via decades of selfless communal service.

But such is not the way of the world.  To most of humanity, masculinity is strength.   If there is a masculine figure in world leadership, it is not the men and women sitting on comfortable chairs in Brussels.  It is in the persona of Vladimir Putin, a man who fights for his national pride. It is in the bare chested strongman who hunts lions, swims rivers, and dives to the bottom of the ocean.  It is a man whose persona exudes strength, whose persona never shows weakness.  

This masculine personality is antithetical to the Left.  In my opinion, it is not the wrongdoing Putin committed that bothers them. It is the masculinity he has revived.  

Iran’s Mullahs are not masculine figures.  While they are ideological murderers for sure, but they aren’t overtly masculine.  Thus, they are given reprieve.  Thus, they should be given accommodation and should be understood.

President Trump is not a conservative.  Had the Left-leaning media embraced him from the start, he could well have nominated Merrik Garland instead of Neil Gorsuch.  He has never done anything like Putin does.  But he won the election by raising America’s masculinity, its national pride.  Mexico doesn’t want to pay for the wall? It just got 20 feet taller.  Slander me, I’ll sue you.  Reject my executive order, I’ll revise it but keep it essentially the same.   He doesn’t back down.  He is strong. And the Left hates strength.

Trump is not Putin.  But his masculinity echoes Putin’s masculinity.  Thus, there must be a connection.  Thus, there must be a secret alliance.   It must be, and so it is.  

The Judeo-Christian ethic is masculine.  God holds people accountable.  God says we must discipline ourselves, limit our desires, to have a full relationship with Him.   The pathway to heaven is through choosing good and rejecting evil.  It is not by crying victim, blaming others and shirking personal responsibility.  There are rules to follow, there are rules to morality.   

To me, this is the reason the Left is weak on Iran yet strong on Putin.  And why it cannot forgive President Trump.

The author of two books, Rabbi Yaakov Rosenblatt serves as Director of the American Alliance of Jews and Christians (AAJC)

Rabbis Ari Edelkopf, with black beard, and Berel Lazar, right, listen to a speech at a reception of the Federation of Jewish Communities of Russia in Sochi, Russia, Feb. 9. Photo courtesy of Federation of Jewish Communities

Rabbi’s expulsion rattles Russian Jews fearful of Kremlin crackdown


Three years ago, Rabbi Ari Edelkopf and his wife, Chana, worked around the clock for weeks to show off their community and city to the many foreigners in town for the Winter Olympics in Sochi.

The Chabad emissaries from the United States came to the city on Russia’s Black Sea coast in 2002. By the time the Olympics opened, they could offer three synagogues, five information centers and 24/7 kosher catering to thousands of people in the city, which has only 3,000 Jews.

The Edelkopfs were celebrated in the local media for these considerable efforts, which the Kremlin marketed as proof that Russia welcomes minorities — including by inviting a Russian chief rabbi to speak at the opening.

This month, the couple is in the news again but for a different reason: They and their seven children have been ordered to leave Russia after authorities flagged Ari Edelkopf as a threat to national security — a precedent in post-communist Russia that community leaders call false and worrisome, but are unable to prevent.

Occurring amid a broader crackdown on foreign and human rights groups under President Vladimir Putin, the de facto deportation order against the Edelkopfs is to many Russian Jews a sign that despite the Kremlin’s generally favorable attitude to their community, they are not immune to the effects of living in an increasingly authoritarian state. And it is doubly alarming in a country where many Jews have bitter memories of how the communists repressed religious and community life.

The Edelkopfs’ deportation order drew an unusually harsh reaction from the Federation of Jewish Communities of Russia, a Chabad-affiliated group that has maintained friendly and mutually beneficial ties with Putin.

The order, which included no explanation or concrete accusation, “raises serious concerns for the future of the Jewish communities in the country,” Rabbi Boruch Gorin, a federation spokesman, told the L’chaim Jewish weekly last week. Gorin is a senior aide to Beral Lazar, the chief rabbi who spoke at the Sochi opening ceremony.

Gorin also called the order “an attempt to establish control” on religious communities in Russia, including the Jewish one, which he said is serviced by some 70 Chabad rabbis, half of whom are foreign.

Many Sochi Jews consider Edelkopf, a Los Angeles native, a popular and beloved spiritual leader with an impeccable record and a close relationship with Lazar. They reacted with dismay and outrage to the deportation order.

“This is absurd,” Rosa Khalilov wrote in one of the hundreds of Facebook messages posted to Edelkopf’s profile, in which he offered updates from his failed legal fight to stay in Russia. “Deportation without proof and thus without proper defense for the accused. I am utterly disappointed.”

Typical of such discussions, comments by Russian speakers abroad tended to be more outspoken than the ones authored domestically.

“Somewhere along the way our country changed without our noticing,” wrote Petr Shersher, a 69-year-old Jewish man from Khabarovsk who lives in the United States. “We’re suddenly not among friends and compatriots but in another brutal and indifferent atmosphere.”

Since the fall of communism in 1991, the Federation of Jewish Communities of Russia — essentially Chabad’s Russia branch, and by far the country’s largest Jewish group — only on a very rare occasion had publicly questioned the viability of Jewish life in the country or the authorities’ tolerance of religious freedoms.

The strong reactions to the Edelkopf edict seem to be less connected to the actual expulsion – at least seven rabbis have been sent packing over the past decade over visa and residence issues — than to the assertion that Edelkopf endangers Russia, a claim the rabbi denies.

“This serious allegation is a negative precedent that we had never seen directed at a rabbi before in Russia, and it is a very, very big problem for us,” Gorin told JTA. “What are they saying? Is he a spy? We can remember very well the times when Jews were last accused of endangering state security,” he added in reference to anti-Semitic persecution under communism.

Behind the expulsion of Edelkopf and the other rabbis, Gorin added, is an attempt by the state to limit the number of foreign clerics living in Russia – an effort that has led to expulsions not only of rabbis but also of imams and Protestant priests.

“It’s not targeting the Jews,” he said.

Alexander Boroda, the president of Gorin’s federation, told Interfax that he was “dismayed” by the expulsion and suggested it was the work of an overzealous official eager “to check off the box” after being ordered to curb immigration.

Boroda also told Interfax that the deportation was not anti-Semitic. He recalled how Putin’s government has facilitated a Jewish revival in Russia — including by returning dozens of buildings; educating to tolerance; adding Jewish holidays to the national calendar, and offering subsidies to Jewish groups. Lazar, who was born in Italy, often contrasts the scarcity of anti-Semitic violence in Russia with its prevalence in France and Great Britain.

The government has also tolerated criticism by the Chabad-led community. Under Lazar and Boroda, the Federation has largely ignored xenophobia against non-Jews but consistently condemned any expression of anti-Semitism — including from within Putin’s party and government.

The federation even spoke out against Russia’s vote in favor of a UNESCO resolution last year that ignores Judaism’s attachment to the Western Wall in Jerusalem.

Still, the Edelkopf deportation is part of a string of recent incidents in which Jews have suffered the effects of growing authoritarianism in Russia – a country where opposition figures are routinely prosecuted and convicted. Since 2012 the country has slipped in international rankings of free speech and human rights; Freedom House’s “Freedom on the Internet” index slipped recently from “partly free” to “not free.”

Under legislation from 2012, a Jewish charitable group from Ryazan near Moscow was flagged in 2015 by the justice ministry as a “foreign agent” over its funding from the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee and its reproduction in a newsletter of political op-eds that appeared in the L’chaim Jewish weekly.

Ari Edelkopf and wife Chana in 2009 in Sochi, Russia. Photo courtesy of Federation of Jewish Communities

Last year, a court in Sverdlovsk convicted a teacher, Semen Tykman, of inciting hatred among pupils at his Chabad school against Germans and propagating the idea of Jewish superiority. Authorities raided his school and another one in 2015, confiscating textbooks, which some Russian Jews suggested was to create a semblance of equivalence with Russia’s crackdown on radical Islam.

Before that affair, a Russian court in 2013 convicted Ilya Farber, a Jewish village teacher, of corruption in a trial that some Jewish groups dismissed as flawed, in part because the prosecution displayed some anti-Semitic undertones in arguing it.

While the incidents differ in their local contexts in the multiethnic behemoth that is Russia, seen together they demonstrate that the Jewish minority not only thrived under Putin but is feeling the “collateral damage as the government drastically tightens its grip on all areas of life,” according to Roman Bronfman, a former Israeli lawmaker from Ukraine and a staunch critic of Putin.

Natan Sharansky, the chairman of the Jewish Agency, recently named the anti-democratic measures of Putin’s government — along with the halving of the Russian ruble against the dollar amid sanctions and dropping oil prices — as a major catalyst for an increase in immigration to Israel by Russian Jews.

Last year, Russia was Israel’s largest provider of immigrants with some 7,000 newcomers to the Jewish state, or olim – a 10-year high that saw Russia’s Jewish population of roughly 250,000 people lose  2 1/2 percent of its members to Israel.

But to Lazar, Russia’s Chabad-affiliated chief rabbi, the numbers tell a different story, he told JTA last week at the Limmud FSU Jewish learning conference in London.

“I don’t know if Jews are leaving because of these steps,” he said, referring to limitations on freedom of speech and other liberties in Russia. “But I think it’s a testament to the revival of the community, which has instilled Jewish identity to provide many olim, whereas 15 years ago this phenomenon just didn’t exist.”

At Senior Center, She Learns ‘Nobody Can Compete With Putin’


Until recently, Nadia Luzina gave lectures on culture and politics to her fellow elderly Russians at a senior center in Mar Vista. 

In one talk about Russian President Vladimir Putin and his role in the takeover of the Crimea region in Ukraine, she called him “dictator.”

The audience quickly became annoyed with her and accused her of anti-Putin sentiments. One woman warned Luzina, an 84-year-old Russian Jew, that her anti-Putin comments might offend ethnic Russians. Someone called Luzina a traitor. The following week, not a single person showed up at her lectures.

“Everyone turned away from me that day,” she said.

In recent weeks, there has been much talk of the mutual admiration between Putin and Donald Trump, the Republican candidate for president of the United States. The annexation of Crimea and prosecution of opposition leaders turned some world powers against Putin and many Americans have expressed dismay at Trump’s laudatory remarks about the Russian president, but not everyone shares that skepticism. 

Among many Russian-Jewish expatriates in Los Angeles, the second most populated Russian-speaking community in the United States, Putin gets high marks.

“Nobody can compete with Putin,” said Leonid Ivanov, who moved to L.A. from Belarus 15 years ago and now lives in West Hollywood. “With him, the unemployment rate went down and many people got a job.”

For decades, the fate of Russian Jews depended on the czar’s will. Before the Bolshevik revolution, they were segregated in the western part of the Russian Empire, known as the Pale of Settlement, terrorized by Cossacks’ pogroms.

Under Soviet control, synagogues were shut down and Jews were banned from any administrative positions. But in recent years, Jews have seen anti-Semitism weakening in Russia, a change many attribute to Putin’s peacemaking efforts.

“With Putin, there is less anti-Semitism,” said Victor Petrov, a West Hollywood resident who emigrated from the Black Sea port city of Odessa 25 years ago. Of course, that could be due to changing demographics, too. “Maybe it’s because there are not that many Jews left,” he added. 

For many Russian Jews who remember economic hardships of the post-Soviet era, Putin symbolizes times of economic stability and growth, when Russia finally got up from its knees.

The country hit rock bottom in the 1990s in the time of financial collapse, political crisis, war in Chechnya, and the bombing of residential buildings in Moscow.

“It’s mind-blowing that someone would want a dictator until you lived through 1990s in Moscow,” said Robert English, director of the School of International Relations at the University of Southern California. “If you lived through a decade of President Boris Yeltsin and his efforts to make democracy work, it would make sense. Those efforts produced crime, corruption and criminals.”

Those turbulent times also made many Russians reluctant to support building a Western-style democracy.

“They had such a bad experience in the 1990s that they gave up on democracy,” English said. “A lot of people said, ‘If I have to choose between democracy and freedom of press or stable society with less crime and steady income, I choose the stability.’ ”

Russian-Jewish expatriates also believe Putin protected Russia’s sovereignty by taking over the Crimean Peninsula, historically populated by Russians. 

“Crimea belongs to Russia because everyone speaks Russian there,” said Victor Tankelevich, who moved to Los Angeles from Moscow in the late 1990s, fleeing economic turmoil. “Ukrainians are trying to eliminate Russian culture in Crimea. So why would we need to give it to Ukraine? Crimea has always belonged to us.”

Since the day of the heated discussion, Luzina has stopped giving lectures at her Mar Vista senior center, but has continued the political debates with her 94-year-old Russian Jewish boyfriend, who is a big supporter of Putin.

“He saved Russia from destruction, and I respect him for that,” said Isaac, who asked that his last name not be used. Isaac moved to Los Angeles from St. Petersburg 24 years ago. “Putin was able to keep the country together.”  

Luzina came here from Moscow in 1990 with her husband Lev, who passed away a few years ago. To distract herself from the grief of losing her husband, she started spending hours at her laptop digging into Russian history and politics. A friend suggested she give lectures on politics and culture at the Universal Adult Day Healthcare center.

On a recent Wednesday morning, Luzina sat at a table covered with a clear tablecloth, along with four fellow seniors. Sitting next to Isaac, she wore a long black skirt. Her pearl necklace matched white sandals and a white top with large blue leaves and sparkling buttons. 

Their square table was in a long auditorium, and as the group waited for breakfast, their conversation shifted toward Russian politics.

“Putin is a dictator and Russia needs the dictator because it has the slave mentality,” said Anna Z., who declined to give her last name. “Russia needs a person like Putin to keep the country together.”

A woman wearing a brown apron served, and the group started breakfast. Black-and-white plastic jars with signs “coffee” and “tea” sat on the table next to bowls of steamy oatmeal and a glass vase with artificial roses.

A large painting of a fountain decorated the yellow walls. On the opposite wall, a sign that read “Happy Birthday” hung next to an American flag. 

Luzina has been coming to the senior center for several years, but since the beginning of the Crimean crisis, she said, she has had trouble connecting with fellow Russians. 

“I read news on the internet, and those old fools watch Russian channels, which is nothing but propaganda,” she said. 

With Euro Cup brawl and Olympics doping scandal, Russia deepens its sense of isolation


In authoritarian political systems, sports take on outsized importance. After all, national greatness is part of the bargain: a measure of democratic freedom is traded for strength and victory, whether on the battlefield or in the stadium. That logic holds for Vladimir Putin’s Russia, too—which is why you could say Putin has had very bad month. In France, at the Euro Cup, the violence of Russian hooligans almost got the national team banned, before a humiliating loss to Wales took care of that, sending the Russians home doubly embarrassed. Days later the International Olympic Committee upheld a ban on Russian track-and-field athletes at the forthcoming Rio Olympics in response to evidence of a widespread, state-sponsored doping project. Seeing as the legitimacy of the Putin system comes less from the ballot box than from the deliverance of national pride and success, it was likely not the most upbeat of weeks inside the Kremlin.

Dating back to the Cold War, Soviet rulers embraced sports as a vehicle to prove Communism’s superiority, at whatever the cost. International sporting events are a way of forcing the West’s acceptance, as Putin achieved in hosting the Sochi Winter Olympics two years ago, and of delivering a sense of national pride by winning. The Russians were so desperate to win we now know they resorted to extensive doping. These days, it seems like international sports deepen Russians’ sense of grievance and isolation from the world. Sports have become a microcosm of Russians’ conflicted desire to gain the respect and validation of an international world order whose legitimacy they question, and seek to undermine. 

Successive generations of Kremlin rulers have tried to project the image of the country as a besieged fortress, alone in the world and surrounded by enemies. For Vladimir Putin and those around him, Russia’s latest tribulations in the world of global sport seem to bear out that worldview. First came the clashes in Marseille, in which Russian soccer fans fought with England supporters during the EuroCup. Some Russian fans shot flare guns towards the English section of the stands and burst into the section as the match ended. Fights spilled out in the streets, as well. More than 30 people were hospitalized, including several with critical brain injuries.

Russian soccer fans are late to international hooliganism, but the Western press and French law enforcement still managed to make it sound like there was something novel and sinister about the Russian version of the problem, calling Russia’s violent fans “well-trained” and organized. Russians, in turn, pointed to the bad press as yet another example of Western institutions’ inherently anti-Russian ideology. 

Similar to how Russian officials have responded to, for example, Western sanctions over Ukraine, they hit back on criticism over fan violence, conceding nothing and instead raising the rhetorical temperature. Vladimir Markin, a top law-enforcement official, suggested that Europeans couldn’t handle Russia's soccer fans because they are more accustomed to gay-pride parades than dealing with “real men.” Igor Lebedev, a deputy in parliament and member of Russia's football union, said, “Nothing wrong with fighting. Keep it up boys!”

With time, however, the tone changed. The Russian team was fined 150,000 Euros and given a suspended disqualification from the tournament—one that proved superfluous after the disastrous 0-3 loss to Wales—which appeared to convince Russian officials that the matter was serious enough not to be laughed away. The ugliness of the violence immediately raised questions about Russia’s ability to host the 2018 World Cup, which will be held in 11 cities across the country. Even before the brutal scenes in France, Russia’s World Cup was already tarnished, marred by the specter of corruption and vote-buying. Putin has been a lonely defender of ousted FIFA president Sepp Blatter, the man who presided over the selection of Russia to host in 2018 and who has since been brought down by allegations of corruption. With an event of such national prestige at stake, officials began to display uncharacteristic contrition. The country’s sports minister, Vitaliy Mutko, said that violent fans in masks “brought shame on their country.” For his part, Putin condemned the attacks in Marseille, calling them a “disgrace.” But Putin couldn’t help himself, adding that “I truly don't understand how 200 of our fans could beat up several thousand English.”

Although some anonymous British officials theorized the Russian hooligans were part of the Kremlin’s strategy of “hybrid war”—using a patchwork of covert, deniable means to undermine the Western security order—that seems an unfounded and paranoid exaggeration.  Over the years, nationalists and football hooligans have periodically been convenient allies of the Kremlin, but ultimately the Putin state is wary of uncontrolled violence, which could one day threaten its own power. The young men who came to France from Russia may have been well prepared for a fight—armed with metal bars and fingerless gloves—but in many respects, their inspiration comes more from the football hooligans of England of the 1970s and 80s than anything homegrown.

Just days after the soccer hooligan controversy, on June 17, the International Association of Athletics Federations, the governing body for track and field competitions, banned Russian athletes from the 2016 Rio Olympics for sustained and wide-reaching doping violations. The decision was historic: individual athletes have been barred from international competition for doping, but never entire national teams. Investigations into Russian doping suggested an illicit program with alleged support of the country’s security services. To date, Russia’s response to the allegations, which have gathered in strength and damning detail in recent months, has been to try and cauterize the wound, admitting to a certain degree of malfeasance while denying a deeply rooted culture of doping condoned at the top. After the ban was announced, Putin tried this tactic anew, suggesting doping violations were limited to a few individuals, and that banning the whole track and field team amounted to “collective punishment,” saying it was akin to a prison sentence for “an entire family” if one relative committed a crime.

The International Olympic Committee upheld that ban, while keeping open the possibility that individual Russian athletes who go to extraordinary efforts to prove they are clean could be allowed to compete. Either way, the whole affair casts a far more humiliating note on Russian sporting exploits. It’s possible Russia may turn its back on Rio in a huff. A widely circulated tabloid with Kremlin ties asked the question, “Is it worth Russia going to Rio?” After all, the editorial posited, “They want us to crawl to them on our knees, ask forgiveness, and beg to be let in.”

For Putin and those close to him, efforts to exclude or punish Russia, whether for its annexation of Crimea or support for state-sponsored doping programs, are seen sees as pieces of a larger conspiracy. Today’s Russian elite sees plots against its power and authority everywhere it turns: some of those visions are grounded in actual Western policy, if a distorted understanding of it; others are nothing more than baseless, paranoid fantasy; and, like its poorly performing soccer team or apparently state-run doping program, no small number are problems of Russia’s own making. After the loss to Wales, a fitting joke started to make the rounds, playing Russia’s sporting woes off the geopolitical tensions it has encountered over the years. Echoing a comment that Putin made in 2014, when he said that unidentified soldiers in Crimea weren’t Russian troops but had purchased their military gear in a shop, the joke has Putin saying “those aren’t our soccer players on the field, they just bought their uniforms in a shop.”

Joshua Yaffa is a New America fellow and a contributor to The New Yorker based in Moscow. 

This article originally appeared on Zocalo Public Square.

Netanyahu on way to Russia to meet with Putin


Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel left Monday on an official visit to Russia to mark the 25th anniversary of the reestablishment of diplomatic relations between the two countries.

Netanyahu and Russian President Vladimir Putin are scheduled to meet Wednesday at the Kremlin. It will be the fourth time that Netanyahu and Putin have met in recent months, including Netanyahu visits to Moscow last September and in April, and a meeting in November during the Paris climate conference.

The leaders will discuss regional issues including the global fight against terrorism; the situation in and around Syria; the diplomatic horizon between Israeli and the Palestinians; bilateral economic and trade cooperation, and the strengthening of cultural and humanitarian ties, the Prime Minister’s Office said in a statement.

In other diplomatic actions, a bilateral pensions agreement to restore Russian pensions to immigrants to Israel from the states of the former Soviet Union is scheduled to be signed. The agreement must be ratified by the Russian government. Also, a memorandum of understanding for cooperation in agriculture and dairy technology is set to be signed.

Netanyahu and his wife, Sara, are scheduled to meet with Russian Jewish leaders such as Berel Lazar, a chief rabbi of Russia; Pinchas Goldschmidt, chief rabbi of Moscow, and Russian Jewish Congress President Yuri Kanner, along with members of the community.

Netanyahu also is scheduled to visit the armored corps museum in Moscow where an Israeli tank from the Battle of Sultan Yacoub during the Lebanon War in 1982 is currently located. Putin recently signed an order to repatriate the tank to Israel.

Netanyahu, Putin meet to ‘avoid’ military mishaps over Syria


Amid tension between Israeli and Russian troops around Syria, Benjamin Netanyahu met with Vladimir Putin in Moscow to discuss ways to avoid friction.

Israel’s prime minister and Russia’s president met Thursday in Moscow to “tighten security coordination between Israel and Russia to avoid errors,” Netanyahu said in a statement. The commander of the Israel Air Force, Major General Amir Eshel and the prime minister’s military secretary, Eliezer Toledano, will have follow-up meetings with Russian top brass, the statement also said.

The meeting took place following several incidents involving Russian troops in Syria and Israeli military personnel, the Israeli daily Yedioth Achronoth reported. In one incident, a Russian fighter jet scrambled to meet and escorted an Israel Air Force plane carrying out intelligence missions over Syrian airspace, according to the report. A Kremlin spokesperson on Friday denied the reports, saying they were “far from the truth.”

Russia stepped up its military presence in Syria and made it public last year in a bid to bail out the Syrian government under Bashar Assad, who has lost control of large parts of the country in the course of a bloody civil war that erupted in 2011.

Israeli aircraft regularly fly over Syrian airspace, according to non-Israeli media, and have carried out dozens of strikes in that country and Lebanon to prevent certain weapons from reaching Hezbollah, an ally of Assad, and other militant groups.

During the meeting with Putin, Netanyahu reiterated statements he made earlier this week about the Golan Heights, which Israel captured from Syria in 1967 and effectively annexed in 1981, remaining under Israeli control.

“We will not return to the days when our towns and children were fired upon from up in the Golan,” he was quoted by Ynet as saying in reference to frequent shelling from the Golan before 1967. “So, with an agreement or without it, the Golan will remain under Israeli sovereignty.”

Putin, Netanyahu agree in call to coordinate efforts to fight terrorism


Russian President Vladimir Putin and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu agreed in a phone call on Tuesday to coordinate their two countries' actions to fight terrorism in the Middle East, the Kremlin said in a statement.

The two leaders discussed the Syrian crisis during their conversation.

“Vladimir Putin stressed that there is no alternative to the launch of intra-Syrian negotiations under the auspices of the United Nations, as well as to the continued and uncompromising fight against Islamic State and other extremist groups acting in Syria,” the Kremlin was quoted as saying.

In Putin’s policing of Middle East, some see a boon for Israel


As a defiant Russia again flexes military muscles in the Middle East and Eastern Europe, Cold War analogies are, perhaps, unavoidable.

The deployment last month of Russian warplanes in Syria laid bare Moscow’s readiness to use force to punish leaders who would challenge its authority — as in Ukraine, from which it annexed Crimea in March 2014 — and to defend its strategic allies, like Syria’s embattled president, Bashar Assad.

During the Cold War, Kremlin intervention generally meant bad news for Jews, who were second-class citizens, of sorts, in the Soviet Union — and for Israel, which the USSR regarded as an extension of its American rival. But observers of Russia’s current bid for greater influence in the Middle East say it may be a boon for Israel, which has strived in recent years to stay on the good side of Russian President Vladimir Putin.

“The main risk for Israel is not Assad but chaos” amid Syria’s bloody civil war of the past four-plus years, Ksenia Svetlova, a Moscow-born Israeli Labor party lawmaker, told JTA. “If the Russian deployment prevents it, then it can be a positive development.”

As Russia began beefing up its presence in Syria, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu traveled last month to Moscow in an effort to avoid Russian-Israeli military entanglements in or over Syria, where Israel routinely retaliates for cross-border rocket attacks or goes on the offensive to eliminate certain types of weaponry. (“We are neither for nor against Assad,” The Economist quoted Netanyahu as saying during the Sept. 21 meeting.)

Netanyahu reportedly was satisfied with the outcome of the meeting, in which he discussed with Putin ways to avoid clashes with Russian troops during its retaliatory missions in Syria. Further high-level talks on Syria are scheduled to begin between Israel and Russia later this month, Israel’s Army Radio reported last week.

Netanyahu’s visit, and the understanding reached while in Moscow, speaks to his government’s broader policy of neutrality on Russia, which has set Israel apart from most Western countries. Last year, the United States, European Union, Canada, Australia and Japan introduced several rounds of trade and other sanctions on Russia.

During the Crimea annexation, and Russia’s subsequent arming of pro-Russian secessionists in Ukraine, Israel remained conspicuously silent.

Roman Bronfman, a former Meretz party lawmaker in Israel and prominent Russia analyst who was born in what today is Ukraine, lamented Netanyahu’s “recognition of Russian dominance by flying to Moscow, naming it the boss in another insult to Israel’s true ally, America.”

The Netanyahu trip to Moscow contrasted sharply with the U.S. position on Russia’s efforts. Last week, U.S. Defense Secretary Ashton Carter said that Russia’s military moves were “pouring gasoline on the fire” because Russian strikes reportedly have targeted U.S.-backed rebels — not the Islamic State terrorists that Moscow had singled out as the target of its operation.

To Bronfman, Russian deployment in Syria also means “opening a corridor for more presence on Israel’s borders by Iran and Hezbollah.” Syria, he explained, is after all a close ally of both the Islamic Republic and the Shiite militia.

The Netanyahu-Putin meeting demonstrated just how far ties between Israel and Russia have progressed since the Cold War, according to Mark Galeotti, a Russia analyst and professor of global affairs at New York University. For its part, Russia perceives Israel as a rare island of stability, he said.

To be sure Russia, which is the world’s second largest weapons purveyor behind the United States, is still arming Israel’s enemies, Iran included. But now Russia also buys Israeli arms, including drones. It also acts as a mediator for dialogue between Israel and parties with few or no Western contacts, such as the Assad regime and Hamas.

Russia’s intervention in Syria comes as the United States scales back its military presence in the Middle East as part of President Barack Obama’s policy of emphasizing diplomacy over force.

But Putin’s challenge to the West, observers say, lies not so much in its protection of the Assad regime but in his creeping influence with Iran and some American allies in the region, such as Egypt, Saudi Arabia and even Israel. In recent months, Russia has been wooing Cairo, Riyadh and Tehran — resulting in economic agreements on sharing nuclear energy and know-how with Saudi Arabia, and selling advanced weapons to Iran. Putin also invited Egypt to join the Eurasian Economic Union, Russia’s free-trade zone that now comprises only ex-members of the former Soviet Union.

“What is happening between Russia and Egypt, as well as Saudi Arabia, is indeed a new development that is meant to occupy the vacuum left by U.S. non-intervention, or the perception of it,” said Svetlova, the Israeli lawmaker and a former journalist specializing in the Arab-speaking world.

Netanyahu’s meeting with Putin coincided with Russia’s increased influence in some Arab countries with rulers who disapprove of Obama’s support for the Arab Spring revolutions and the nuclear agreement with Iran. Supporters both of Syria’s Assad regime and Egypt’s government led by Abdel Fattah el-Sisi in recent months have been displaying posters of Putin in Damascus and Cairo, where many now see him as a hero.

Meanwhile, the Saudi government criticized the U.S.-led nuclear agreement with Iran before ultimately giving its lukewarm consent to the deal.

And el-Sisi has had harsh words for Obama, who supported the revolution that in 2011 toppled the regime of Hosni Mubarak, a predecessor of el-Sisi.

“You left the Egyptians, you turned your back on the Egyptians,” el-Sisi said in 2013 of the Obama administration, “and they won’t forget that.”

Israel faces potential challenge from Russia over Syria


This article first appeared on The Media Line.

Periodically throughout the four and half years of the Syrian civil war weapon shipments destined for Hezbollah were intercepted and decimated by airstrikes inside Syria. In each instance Israel, whose air force has enjoyed unrivalled dominance of the airspace around the Jewish state’s borders, was believed responsible. But with the deployment of Russian combat aircraft to bases in Syria several weeks ago this hegemony may have ended.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s recent visit to Moscow underscores Israel’s uncertainty over the future in Syria. Israeli officials worry that, inadvertently or otherwise, Russian fighter jets and air defense systems may act as a screen for Hezbollah to move new arms convoys into Syria.

Several days ago Israeli artillery units fired on Syrian army positions in response to errant shells crossing the border. This represented the first time Israel has attacked Syria since Russian President Vladimir Putin deployed troops and jets into the country. Yet the incidents took place in the Golan Heights, far south of any Russian units which are stationed on the coast.

“The most immediate issue is one of having Israeli flights over Syrian territory (and) ensuring that Russia flights won’t have any confusion or accidental fire incidents (with them),” Yezid Sayigh, a Senior Associate with the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut, told The Media Line. But, he added, “This doesn’t need Netanyahu to visit Moscow.” In a similar manner to back channel communications between the US and Syria, Israel and Russia could have cooperated quietly to ensure that both states air forces operated in the same airspace without coming into conflict. A high level visit by Netanyahu demonstrates a deeper agenda, Sayigh said.

“(Its) more a question of working out how far will Russia go in protecting the regime (of President Bashar Al-Assad) – air defenses, new high tech combat aircraft,” Sayigh explained. Of chief concern to Israel would be the delivery of the S-300 air defense system to the Syrian military, something Russia has repeatedly said it will do, Sayigh said. The Russian built anti-aircraft system is capable of targeting planes and cruise missiles and is considered one of the most capable air defense systems in the world. The Israeli government has stated in the past that it would not accept the S-300 being transferred to the Syrian army.

Although Israel has not actively sought to undermine the Assad regime during the ongoing conflict the two countries are still technically at war. Israelis debate whether Assad’s fall or his survival is better for Israel. Russia, on the other hand, has stated that it will work to ensure Assad remains in power, with Putin declaring that supporting the regime is the most effective way to both fight Islamic State and end violence in the region.

A possibility exists that Russian and Israeli jets could come into conflict over Syrian skies but such a scenario is highly unlikely, Zvi Magen, a Senior Research Fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies, told The Media Line. “Russia is not fighting on the ground and in the air there is enough technical solutions (to ensure an accidental clash would not occur),” Magen said.

On the issue of Hizbullah, Israel retains the right to strike at weapon shipments and this will be understood and accepted by Russia, Magen said. “Russia is not looking for war,” and understands that Israel has certain requirements, the researcher explained. But this is not a disadvantage for Hizbullah however. “It’s good for them because they are part of this coalition – Russia, Iran, Syria and Hezbollah,” Magen concluded.

Israel’s freedom of action over Syria could be curtailed by the Russian deployment, Raymond Hinnebusch, the director of the Centre for Syrian Studies at the University of St. Andrews, told The Media Line. “To the extent a Russian air defense umbrella reaches outward from their base in the coastal areas… this would potentially limit Israeli options,” the professor said.

The boost to the beleaguered Syrian regime that Putin’s actions represent could have far reaching implications for the whole of the region if they are enough to ensure Assad’s survival. This could alter Israel’s view of the near future and reverse assessments previously made by Israeli intelligence chiefs that Assad’s demise was inevitable.

“The main strategic change is… that the Russian presence will tend to push back against those pressuring for turning the US/Western airstrikes from (targeting) ISIS to hitting Assad,” Hinnebusch said.

Putin is “hoisting the Americans on their own petard,” by lauding the US sentiment that all states must work together to combat ISIS and then including Syria in this equation, Yezid Sayigh argued. Effectively, the Russians have created a “back window” for Assad to survive by, he suggested.

Powers struggle to agree on Syria; Russia urged to strike Islamic State


France challenged Russia to back its words with deeds over fighting Islamic State militants in Syria as major powers on Tuesday struggled to resolve differences between Moscow and the West over ending the civil war in the Middle Eastern country.

After Russian President Vladimir Putin, who has sent warplanes and tanks to support Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, called for a new anti-Islamic State coalition, diplomats pursued new ways to build a solid front against the militants.

Ideas suggested on the sidelines of the annual United Nations General Assembly in New York included using the model of a small group of world powers that succeeded in negotiating the July 14 Iran nuclear deal, and breathing new life into a virtually moribund broader U.N. peace mechanism.

“What's important in the fight against Islamic State is not the media strike, it's the real strike,” French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said in response Putin's statements Monday at the gathering of world leaders.

Fabius said the Russians “talk a lot, but as far as I can tell they haven't committed any planes against Islamic State.” He added: “If it (Russia) is against the terrorists, it's not abnormal to launch strikes against them.”

A U.S.-led coalition has been bombing Islamic State targets in Syria for about a year with a separate coalition with some of the same countries striking the militants in neighboring Iraq.

The militants control large areas in both countries, exploiting chaos created in Syria by a civil war that began more than four years ago when Assad cracked down on protests against his government.

PUTIN'S PLANS

Western officials have questioned whether Russian objectives in Syria are more to strengthen Assad and build up Moscow's presence as a power in the region than fighting the militants.

Putin told the General Assembly that Assad should be part of the coalition fighting Islamic State. Washington and its allies have indicated Assad might stay in power in the short term but a transition was essential and he had no long term role.

“Bashar has been qualified by the U.N. as a criminal against humanity. How can you imagine Syrians coming back if we tell them that their future passes through Assad?” Fabius said.

After Putin and U.S. President Barack Obama met on Monday, both powers said they were committed to destroying Islamic State and they agreed their militaries would communicate to avoid any accidental clashes between forces in the area.

“There was agreement that Syria should be a unified country, united, that it needs to be secular, that ISIL (Islamic State) needs to be taken on, and that there needs to be a managed transition,” U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said on Tuesday.

Kerry told MSNBC: “Everybody understands that Syria is at stake, and the world is looking rapidly for some kind of resolution.”   

ASSAD'S FUTURE

Assad's future role remained the biggest sticking point and Kerry told MSNBC differences remained on what the outcome of such a transition would be. He said he would have further talks with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov here on Wednesday.

Obama told a U.N. meeting on Tuesday: “Defeating ISIL requires, I believe, a new leader and an inclusive (Syrian) government that unites the Syrian people in the fight against terrorist groups. This is going to be a complex process.”

EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini said foreign ministers from Russia, China, Britain, France, Germany and the United States, who met for dinner on Monday, had considered the idea of using the model of that P5+1 group to address Syria.

She said in another meeting of the 28 European Union foreign minister members explored that and other options, including using the EU's influence in the region. “I guess we will have to do a little bit of shuttle diplomacy,” she told reporters.

Russia's Lavrov said he hoped a meeting of the U.N. Security Council on counter terrorism on Wednesday would be another chance to build a solid international legal basis for whatever action might be necessary to fight Islamic State.

Russia is president of the 15-member Security Council for September and Lavrov would chair the meeting.

Western council diplomats, however, voiced doubts that the meeting would yield any significant results.

A bid by Russia for a unanimous council statement on counter terrorism failed after Washington refused to negotiate on the text, which diplomats said strayed into divisive political issues such Syria and Yemen and the Middle East peace process.

In his speech to the General Assembly on Monday Putin proposed talks on a possible Security Council resolution “aimed at coordinating the actions of all forces that confront Islamic State.”

Will Russia’s missile deal with Iran end Israel’s silence on Ukraine?


After Russia invaded Ukraine in March 2014, Israel resisted pressure to join the United States and its European allies in condemning the move — citing in particular its concern not to antagonize Russia for fear it could provide Syria with a powerful anti-aircraft missile called the S-300.

Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman was eager to mollify the Obama administration’s anger over Israel’s refusal to endorse sanctions on Russia or support a U.N. General Assembly resolution condemning Russia’s annexation of Crimea, according to an Op-Ed published last year by Israel’s former U.S. ambassador, Itamar Rabinovich, and noted concerns about the possible missile sales in a meeting with U.S. National Security Advisor Susan Rice.

But if Israeli silence was indeed designed to keep S-300s clear off its doorstep, then that policy has clearly failed.

Ignoring vociferous Israeli protests, Russian President Vladimir Putin announced on April 16 that he would would sell S-300 missiles not to Syria, but to Iran — a move that defense analysts say is guaranteed to complicate any aerial strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities and tip the military scales in favor of the Middle East’s Shiite axis.

“By charting its own appeasement policy on Russia, Israel under Netanyahu and Liberman further alienated the United States, our strongest ally, with little to show for it,” said Roman Bronfman, a Ukraine-born former Israeli lawmaker with the left-wing Meretz party and a television commentator on Russia-Israel relations.

Until now, Russia and the former Soviet states had been a rare foreign policy success for Israel amid its escalating crisis with the Obama administration and growing isolation in Europe.

Israel maintained relative silence on Russia’s actions in Ukraine, even as some of its closest allies were ramping up their criticism. As recently as last year, Israel pulled out of a deal to supply Ukraine with military hardware to avoid angering Russia, Israel’s Channel 2 reported at the time.

Russia reciprocated by muting its criticism of Israel’s military campaign against Hamas in Gaza, according to Zvi Magen, a former Israeli ambassador in Kiev and Moscow, and now a senior research fellow at Tel Aviv University’s Institute for National Security Studies.

“Both sides were careful,” Magen said. “For years Russia refrained from supplying balance-disturbing weapons like the S-300 to the region; not to Iran, Syria or Egypt.”

The arrangement now appears to be in tatters.

Within hours of Putin’s announcement, Netanyahu said that Israel “views it with utmost gravity” and several Israeli media outlets quoted unnamed defense officials threatening to sells arms to Ukraine and Georgia, which has also had a territorial dispute with Russia. Even the United States, despite its harsh criticism of Putin, has thus far held off supplying arms to Ukraine, though it has recently begun training Ukrainian military personnel.

Putin responded publicly to the Israeli threats with a message of his own, saying in an April 18interview with Rossiya 1 TV that Israeli arms sales would merely increase the death toll from the conflict without changing the outcome.

“It’s a choice for the Israeli leadership to make,” Putin said. “They can do what they see necessary.”

Russia’s silence, and its refusal to alter the military balance in the Middle East, were not the only dividends Israel drew from the rapprochement Liberman led with Russia and other Eastern bloc countries.

Under Liberman, Israel signed visa waiver agreements with nearly all the countries that once made up the Soviet Union, paving the way for improved business ties and luring hundreds of thousands of tourists to Israel. Those successes were part of a broader policy that saw Israel invest in new and lucrative partnerships — including with Japan, India and China.

But to Bronfman, the crisis in relations with Russia is proof that those efforts have their limits and that Israel overreached when it charted an independent course on Ukraine.

“Israel’s foreign policy is dependent on its best strategic partner, the United States,” Bronfman said. “Israel needs that partner if it is to exist in its problematic neighborhood, and these crises will just keep occurring as long as Israel doesn’t accept that.”

Magen, however, says the crisis with Russia is a limited one and could even offer Israel a potential silver lining.

“Putin is pushing the S-300 deal not because he wants to harm Israel, but because he is advancing Russia’s interests,” Magen said. “Putin does not want relations to be ruined, and that means that the Russians could offer some compensation for the sale of S-300s … [by] using the Russian vote at the U.N. Security Council to Israel’s advantage when it comes to the Palestinian issue.”

Netanyahu phones Putin to object to missile sale to Iran


Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called Russian President Vladimir Putin to express “grave concerns” regarding the potential future sale of S-300 missile systems to Iran.

During the phone call on Tuesday, Netanyahu said the sale would encourage Iranian aggression in the Middle East.

In a statement released later in the day, Netanyahu said the “dangerous” Iran framework deal reached April 2 in Switzerland was responsible for prompting Putin to green-light the sale.

“This sale of advanced weaponry to Iran is the direct result of the dangerous deal on the table between Iran and the P5+1,” he said in the statement, referring to the six world powers negotiating with Iran. “Can anyone still seriously claim that the deal with Iran will enhance security in the Middle East?”

Netanyahu is considering traveling to Moscow to meet with Putin personally on the issue, Israel’s Channel 2 reported.

On Monday, Putin lifted a ban on the sale of advanced surface-to-air defense missiles to Iran that had been in place since 2007. The move prompted U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry to phone Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov to protest any future missile sales.

Scribbled note shows Nemtsov on trail of Russian deaths in Ukraine


It may have been the last note Boris Nemtsov ever wrote, a hurried scrawl in blue pen on a plain white sheet of A4 paper.

A day before he was shot dead near the Kremlin last week, the Russian opposition figure and his close aide Olga Shorina were discussing a sensitive investigation he was preparing into Moscow's backing for separatist fighters in eastern Ukraine.

Fearing their office was bugged by state intelligence, Nemtsov resorted to scribbling.

“Some paratroopers from Ivanovo have got in touch with me. 17 killed, they didn't give them their money, but for now they are frightened to talk,” said the note, shown to Reuters by Shorina.

“He did not want to say anything, just in case. He did not want to utter it out loud, which is why he wrote it down for me,” she said.

It was not possible to independently confirm the authenticity of the handwritten note.

Since last summer, reports have been circulating inside the country that many serving Russian troops have died in combat in eastern Ukraine, where the separatist war has killed more than 6,000 people.

Despite what Ukraine and its Western allies say is overwhelming evidence, Moscow adamantly denies sending arms or troops to the region, saying any Russians fighting inUkraine are volunteers.

That is why Nemtsov's last report was so sensitive – perhaps sensitive enough, according to some of his friends, to provide at least part of the motive for killing him, though they say they doubt it was the main reason.

Last Friday night, after dining next to Red Square, the 55-year-old former deputy prime minister was shot four times in the back while strolling home with his girlfriend across a bridge within sight of the Kremlin.

He was the most prominent opposition figure to be killed during President Vladimir Putin's 15-year rule. The president has called his death a shameful tragedy, and the Kremlin has denied any involvement.

NO AIR-TIME

Nemtsov was part of a liberal opposition which is supported only by a minority of Russians. He was almost never given air-time on state-run television and radio.

The publication of his report was therefore not likely to resonate with the wider public, which polls show backs Putin's policy on Ukraine. But Shorina said he had been planning to publish 1 million copies, to reach as wide an audience as possible.

In a campaign over many years to expose what he saw as Putin's misrule, Nemtsov had previously published eight reports, including investigations into alleged corruption surrounding last year's Sochi Winter Olympics and into assets owned by the president and his circle.

Shorina and other Nemtsov associates said most of the material he had gathered onUkraine was from open sources, and that he had not been intending to reveal any explosive new information.

However, she said in the course of research he had been contacted by relatives of a group of Russian soldiers who, according to Nemtsov, had been in action in eastern Ukraine. He was trying to persuade them to make their accounts public.

These were the servicemen who according to Nemtsov's note were based in Ivanovo, a city about 300 km (185 miles) north-east of Moscow which is home to units of the Russian military's 98th paratroop division.

“He was maintaining contact with them,” Shorina said. “How he was maintaining contact with them, I don't know, he did not put me in touch with anyone.”

Shorina said she and another Nemtsov associate, Ilya Yashin, would try to salvage the information Nemtsov had been gathering and attempt to publish the report in a month. As far as she was aware, he had only managed to write down a table of contents.

She said that for previous reports, Nemtsov had stored most of the information in his head, and would dictate it to her when he was ready.

Yashin said he and Nemtsov had spoken about the Ukraine report about a day and a half before his death.

“He told me he had been in touch with relatives of Russian soldiers killed there and he was planning a trip to Ivanovo to talk to the parents of those killed soldiers,” Yashin said.

“He said in the very near future he was going to assemble and put in order various evidence and documents directly proving the presence of the Russian military on the territory ofUkraine and, accordingly, (exposing) President's Putin's lies that there are no Russian servicemen there.”

Nemtsov had also settled on a title for the report, Yashin said. He was planning to call it: “Putin and the War”.

Obama: Russia must press Ukraine rebels to allow plane probe


U.S. President Barack Obama piled pressure on Russian President Vladimir Putin on Monday to force pro-Russian separatists to stop blocking an international investigation into the shootdown of a passenger jet last week.

Obama denounced the Russian role in eastern Ukraine in some of his strongest language yet and pointedly appealed to Putin to cut ties with the separatists or risk greater international isolation.

“Now's the time for President Putin and Russia to pivot away from the strategy that they've been taking and get serious about trying to resolve hostilities within Ukraine,” Obama said in remarks on the White House South Lawn.

With investigators blocked from access to the crash site in eastern Ukraine and most of the bodies of the victims removed, Obama said Russia should compel the separatists to let the investigation take place. He questioned why the rebels are blocking access.

“What are they trying to hide?” he said.

Obama did not specifically threaten new economic sanctions against Russia, but he hinted at costs to come should Moscow not change course.

If Russia continues to back the rebels and they become risks not just to Ukraine but to the broader international community, “the costs for Russia's behavior will only continue to increase,” he said.

U.S. officials are increasingly confident that the Malaysian Airlines plane was shot down by the separatists with a Russian-made surface-to-air missile.

“Russia has trained them. We know that Russia has armed them with military equipment and weapons, including anti-aircraft weapons. Key separatist leaders are Russian citizens,” Obama said.

Given Russia influence over the rebels, he said, “Russia, and President Putin in particular, has direct responsibility to compel them to cooperate with the investigation. That is the least that they can do.”

“President Putin says that he supports a full and fair investigation, and I appreciate those words, but they have to be supported by actions,” Obama said.

Jewish group cuts funding for Kiev office over criticism of Putin


An organization representing Russian-speaking Jews cut funding for its Kiev office because of the office head’s criticism of Russia’s actions in Ukraine.

The Euro-Asian Jewish Congress, or EAJC, in February stopped funding its Kiev office, which is run by Josef Zissels, he told JTA on Thursday.

“I don’t know for sure why they stopped the funding, but I think it may be connected to my statements on Russia,” said Zissels, chairman of the Vaad Association of Jewish Organizations and Communities of Ukraine, and a vice president of the World Jewish Congress.

EAJC, which was founded in 2002 by Jewish leaders from Russia, Ukraine and Kazakhstan, confirmed in a statement last week that the freeze was because of Zissels’ politics.

Zissels was outspoken against Russia’s actions in Ukraine, including its annexation on March 18 of the Crimea Peninsula from Ukraine. Earlier that month, he was among the co-signers of a highly critical open letter to Russian President Vladimir Putin accusing him of disingenuously manipulating concerns about anti-Semitism to justify Russia’s actions.

Zissels placed the open letter on the website of the EAJC, though the organization distanced itself from the views expressed there.

In the EAJCstatement, president Julius Meinl wrote that his group suspended funding for several programs conducted by the Kiev office. He said Zissels’ repeated statements are liable to involve EAJC in the political process and are not directly related to Jewish social life.

“The position adopted by [the Kiev office] at a certain stage led to the suspension of the cooperation with EAJC vice presidents, which in turn damaged the Congress,” the statement said.

Zissels would not say how much money was cut, citing confidentiality issues.

“It is unfortunate, but this is not a tragedy because we are working on finding alternative sources of funding,” he said. “We will continue to work.”

Zissels also alleged that EAJC decided on the move “because many of its leaders have huge business interests in Russia.”

EAJC representatives declined to further comment on the issue when they were contacted by JTA.

 

Russia’s Putin says Iran nuclear push is peaceful


Russian President Vladimir Putin said on Tuesday he has no doubt that Iran is adhering to international commitments on nuclear non-proliferation but regional and international concerns about Tehran's nuclear program could not be ignored.

Putin, whose country is among six world powers seeking to ensure that Iran does not seek to develop nuclear weapons, also said Iranian threats to Israel's existence were unacceptable.

His remarks appeared aimed to strike a balance between the interests of Iran, on the one hand, and on the other, Israel and global powers seeking to ensure Tehran does not acquire nuclear weapons.

“I have no doubt that Iran is adhering to the rules in this area. Because there is no proof of the opposite,” Putin, whose country is one of six leading those diplomatic efforts, told Russian state-run English-language channel RT.

But he criticised Iran for rejecting a Russian offer to enrich uranium for Tehran's nuclear programme and took aim at aggressive Iranian rhetoric about Israel, with which Putin has been improving ties in recent years.

“Iran is in a very difficult region and when we hear … from Iran that Israel could be destroyed, I consider that absolutely unacceptable. That does not help,” Putin said.

Putin suggested that Washington was exaggerating dangers posed by Iran, saying “the United States uses Iran to unite Western allies against some real or non-existent threat”.

Putin said that concerns about Iran's nuclear programme, which Tehran says is purely for peaceful purposes including power generation, must be addressed.

Last week, Russia joined China, the United States, Britain, France and Germany in pressing Iran to cooperate with a stalled investigation by the U.N. nuclear agency into suspected atomic research by the Islamic state.

In a June 5 joint statement intended to signal their unity in the decade-old dispute over Iran's nuclear programme, the six powers said they were “deeply concerned” about the country's atomic activities.

Reporting by Alexei Anishchuk, Writing by Steve Gutterman, Editing by Michael Roddy

Russia to send Syria air defense system to deter ‘hotheads’


Russia will deliver an advanced air defense system to the Syrian government despite Western opposition because it will help deter “hotheads” who back foreign intervention, a senior Russian official said on Tuesday.

Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov also accused the European Union of “throwing fuel on the fire” by letting its arms embargo on Syrian expire, saying it would complicate efforts to arrange an international peace conference.

His remarks toughened Russia's defiance of the United States, France and Israel over the planned sale of precision S-300 missile systems to President Bashar al-Assad's government, which is battling a Western and Gulf Arab-backed insurgency.

“We think this delivery is a stabilizing factor and that such steps in many ways restrain some hotheads … from exploring scenarios in which this conflict could be given an international character with participation of outside forces, to whom this idea is not foreign,” he told a news conference.

Western experts say the air defense system could significantly boost Syria's ability to stave off outside intervention in the more than two-year civil war that has killed more than 80,000 people.

The S-300s can intercept manned aircraft and guided missiles and their delivery would improve Assad's government's chances of holding out in Damascus. Western nations say the Russian arms deliveries could increase tension and encourage Assad.

Moscow is standing firm on the sale, despite a trip to Russia by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu this month in which he pleaded with President Vladimir Putin to halt the delivery, and a veiled warning of a military response by Israel.

“I can say that the shipments are not on their way yet,” Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon said on Tuesday at a conference near Tel Aviv. “I hope they will not leave, and if, God forbid, they reach Syria, we will know what to do.”

POWERFUL ALLY

Russia has sent anti-missile defense systems to Syria before, but says it has not sent offensive weapons or arms that can be used against the anti-government forces. A source close to Russia's state arms exporter said a contract to supply Syria with fighter jets had been suspended.

Ryabkov was unable to confirm whether S-300s had already been delivered but said “we will not disavow them”.

Russia has been Assad's most powerful ally during the conflict, opposing sanctions and blocking, with China, three Western-backed U.N. Security Council resolutions meant to pressure the government to stop fighting.

Moscow opposes military intervention or arming Syrian rebels and defends its right to deliver arms to Assad's government.

Ryabkov said the failure by the EU to renew its arms embargo on Syria at a meeting on Monday would undermine the chances for peace talks which Moscow and Washington are trying to organize.

“The European Union is essentially throwing fuel on the fire in Syria,” he said of the EU compromise decision which will allow EU states to supply arms to the rebels if they wish.

His comments were echoed by Putin's press secretary, Dmitry Peskov, who also criticised a visit to Syria on Monday by U.S. Senator John McCain, who met rebels fighting Assad's government.

Britain and France, which opposed renewing the arms embargo, have made clear they reserve the right to send arms immediately, despite an agreement by European countries to put off potential deliveries until August 1, but have made no decisions yet.

A senior French official said the S-300 was brought up at talks between French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry in Paris on Monday.

“Obviously it poses a huge problem for us because if they deliver these weapons – they are ground-to-air missiles – and if we were to set up air corridors, then you can see the contradiction between the two,” the official said.

Israel says Russian weapons sent to Syria could end up in the hands of its enemy, Iran, or the Lebanese Hezbollah group.

Israeli Strategic Affairs and Intelligence Minister Yuval Steinitz said the S-300 could reach deep into the Jewish state and threaten flights over its main commercial airport near Tel Aviv.

Additional reporting by Dan Williams in Jerusalem and John Irish in Paris; Writing by Steve Gutterman; Editing by Alison Williams

Abbas wants peace talks with Israel this year


Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas said on Thursday he hoped peace talks with Israel would restart this year although the chances of a resumption seemed slim.

Abbas made his comments during a meeting in Moscow with Russian President Vladimir Putin, who said Russia would do all it could to promote peace in the region.

“We … hope that substantive peace talks will start this year, although the hopes are probably not very high,” Abbas said through an interpreter at talks at a state residence outside Moscow.

“We hope that in the end we will reach a political solution based on the two-state principle,” he said.

Peace talks broke down in 2010 over Palestinian objections to Israel expanding settlements on land the Palestinians want for a state. Israel has called for a resumption of the talks without preconditions.

Russia, a member of the Quartet of Middle East peace mediators along with the United States, the United Nations and the European Union, has criticized the Israeli settlement expansion.

Putin has tried to balance relations with Arabs including the Palestinians, dating back to the Soviet era, with improved ties to Israel during his 13 years in power.

Reporting by Alexei Anishchuk; Writing by Steve Gutterman, Editing by Timothy Heritage

Assad chemical weapons plans blocked by Moscow


Increasingly under pressure by rebels intent on unseating him, Bashar al-Assad has considered using chemical weapons against his enemies but Washington and Moscow have formed an unlikely alliance to force him to abandon such plans.

Analysts and diplomats across the region and beyond do not doubt that the Assad government, recoiling from a devastating attack on its security establishment last week and struggling to contain rebel offensives across Syria, is capable of using agents such as Sarin gas if its survival is at stake.

Yet some believe that the government’s unprecedented admission that it possesses a chemical stockpile – although in safe storage and only to be deployed against “external aggressors” – is an attempt to allay international alarm that might prompt outside intervention to secure the weapons.

“They have a keen instinct for regime survival and this is an issue which didn’t play well for them, which would really bring serious consequences, not the type of stuff we have been seeing so far from the international community,” said Salman al-Shaikh of the Brookings Doha center.

“I think they wanted to move quickly to take us away from that, to reassure in many ways.

“This regime is capable of anything, but in this case it felt there may well be consequences, that they are perhaps crossing some red lines.”

There has been a barrage of warnings about Syria’s chemical arsenal this month, especially strident from the United States and Israel, but accompanied by firm but private advice from Russia, Assad’s main international ally, to put an end to speculation he might use it.

One Western diplomat in the region said: “There was talk of them using it two weeks ago, but the Russians intervened quickly to stop him.

“If you think how desperate these people are and what they have done in the past, you have to assume they would be prepared to use it. All of us think he (Assad) is capable of using it and will do it if he was pushed to the wall,” the diplomat said, referring to credible reports that Assad was preparing to use Sarin gas against Syrian rebels.

But “the Russians got hold of him and told him ‘don’t even think about it’”.

Moscow went further on Monday, publicly warning Assad not to use chemical weapons, which it said was barred by Syria’s 1968 ratification of an international protocol against using poison gas in war.

“The Russian side proceeds from the assumption that Syrian authorities will continue to strictly adhere to the undertaken international obligations,” it said.

SHARED INTEREST

The diplomat believes Syria’s statement, by foreign ministry spokesman Jihad Makdissi, was put out at Russia’s insistence.

Despite the diplomatic “debacle” over Syria at the UN Security Council, where Moscow has vetoed tougher action against Damascus, “there is a clear shared interest between Russia and the United States to control the chemical weapons”, he said.

“The Israelis are pretty serious about trying to stop it happening, and the Americans too,” the envoy said.

Diplomats said the United States, Israel and Western powers were in close contact on how to deal with the nightmarish eventuality of Assad losing control and his chemical weapons falling into the hands of militant groups – al-Qaeda style Sunni Jihadi insurgents or Assad’s pro-Iranian Shi’ite Lebanese fighters from Hezbollah.

Israel has publicly discussed military action to prevent Syrian chemical weapons or missiles from reaching Hezbollah.

Some Western intelligence sources suggested that Hezbollah and Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, both close allies of Syria, have sent some special units to back Assad in his fight against Sunni insurgents and might get hold of the chemical weapons in the case of a total collapse of government authority.

Hezbollah, backed by Syria and Iran, has tried to distance itself publicly from the Syrian quagmire but it believes a defeat for Syria would mean the group might be targeted next.

Asked whether Hezbollah would try to obtain Syria’s chemical weapons, one diplomat said: “If you think of this as a fight to the death, either with Sunnis or Israelis or both, you’d have an interest in trying to get your hands on chemical weapons.

“It’s one more deterrent against Israel and a big stick to wave,” he said.

President Barack Obama said on Monday that Assad would be held accountable if he made the “tragic mistake” of using his chemical weapons.

Washington said it was keeping a close eye on Syria’s chemical stockpiles and was “actively consulting with Syria’s neighbors and friends to underscore their common concern about the security of these weapons, and the Syrian government’s obligation to secure them”.

REALPOLITIK?

For the Kremlin, revelations about the chemical arsenal will add to its fears about how chaos in Syria could pose risks to Russia, but will not prompt a shift in Moscow’s stance on a crisis that is poisoning its relations with Arabs and the West.

For President Vladimir Putin, making the point that foreign interference is unacceptable trumps other concerns when it comes to Syria.

But Dmitry Trenin, director of the Carnegie Moscow Center, suggested Russia was working with the United States and other countries to try to safeguard chemical weapons or at least is discussing it, although the Kremlin probably believes the concerns are overblown.

“I think Russia is working with everyone, with America first of all … Putin met the Turkish prime minister, he was in Israel, and is in constant contact with the Americans. Of course, nobody wants chemical weapons to be used, let alone to get into the hands of terrorists”.

Russia has blunted Western efforts to condemn Assad and push him from power after voicing anger over NATO air strikes that helped Libyan rebels oust Gaddafi last year.

Since Putin announced in September that he intended to return to the presidency this year, Russia has vetoed three resolutions designed to step up pressure on Assad, angering Western and Arab states that say Moscow is protecting a brutal regime.

That contention will only be compounded by Syria’s acknowledgement on Monday that it has chemical and biological weapons and warning that it could use them if foreign countries intervened.

Alexander Golts, an independent military analyst, said:

“Russia’s position is not dictated by the nature or the actions of the Syrian regime. Russia’s position is very much dictated by an ideological approach – by 19th century Realpolitik, if you will: the overthrow of our ally, our son of a bitch, is a victory for our opponent. Putin still thinks in terms of a zero-sum game.”

NERVE AGENT

Damascus has not signed a 1992 convention that bans chemical weapons, but officials had in the past denied it had any.

It has officially stated that while it supports a Middle East-wide ban on weapons of mass destruction (WMD), it cannot unilaterally renounce chemical arms as long as Israel continues to pose a threat to its security.

Syria began to acquire the ability to develop and produce chemical weapons agents in 1973, including mustard gas and sarin, and possibly also VX nerve agent.

The Global Security website, which collects published intelligence reports and other data, says there are four suspected chemical weapons sites in Syria: north of Damascus, near Homs, in Hama, and near the Mediterranean port of Latakia.

Analysts have also identified the town of Cerin, on the coast, as a possible producer of biological weapons. Several other sites are monitored by foreign intelligence agencies and are listed only as suspect. Weapons Syria produces include the nerve agents VX, sarin and tabun, the website said.

Exact volumes of weapons in the Syrian stockpile are not known. However, the CIA has estimated that Syria possesses several hundred liters of chemical weapons and produces hundreds of tonnes of agents annually.

David Friedman, WMD expert at Tel Aviv University’s Institute for National Security Studies, said “for weaponisation, the material is poured into warheads, which can be anything from ballistic missiles to standard artillery shells to air-dropped munitions. The weapons can be as small as mortar bombs. Some of Syria’s chemical weapons are already in launch-ready, warhead form”.

Abdelbasset Seida, head of the Syrian National Council opposition group, said: “A regime that massacres children and rapes women could use these types of weapons.”

There are many scenarios under which Assad could fall but the worst-case scenario envisages a chaotic and messy downfall with militants and rebels seizing chemical arsenals.

While observers say the use of chemical weapons by the Assad government cannot be excluded, they believe it is not imminent.

“We cannot rule it out but we are probably some ways away from that scenario,” a diplomat said.

But another diplomat said Assad’s acknowledgment that he has nonconventional weapons was an “act of desperation by a regime on its last breath, behaving like a wounded animal who would use anything to fight back”.

Additional reporting by Steve Gutterman and Dan Williams; Editing by Giles Elgood

Putin: Russia already recognizes Palestine


Russian President Vladimir Putin told Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas that Moscow already has recognized a Palestinian state.

“We [recognized Palestine] 25 years ago, and our position has not changed,” Putin told Abbas on Tuesday during a visit to Ramallah, the Times of Israel reported.

“Palestinian leadership, and the president personally, have been behaving responsibly to achieve peace based on the two-state solution,” Putin reportedly said.

U.S. government officials have urged Abbas repeatedly to return to talks with Israel without preconditions. Abbas has said he will not have high-level dialogue until Israel freezes all building in the West Bank and in eastern Jerusalem.

Putin also said that he agreed with Abbas’ efforts to create a national unity government between his Fatah faction and Hamas, the Times of Israel reported. Hamas embraces terrorism as a legitimate tool in its stated goal of destroying Israel.

Earlier this week, Putin had met in Israel with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, calling the visit “a solid basis for building dialogue and partnership.”

Israeli concerns include Russian support for Syria’s embattled Assad regime and the sale of sophisticated anti-aircraft missile systems to Iran. Putin repeatedly has rejected calls for a possible Israeli or Western nation military strike against Iran’s nuclear installations, which Tehran will not fully open to international inspections.

Russia appears to be trying to reassert its role in Israeli-Arab peacemaking. Putin said he was open to hosting a peace summit in Moscow, the Times of Israel reported. Russia and its predecessor state, the Soviet Union, has traditionally favored Arab positions in such talks.

Russia eyes building more nuclear plants for Iran


Russia, which built Iran’s first nuclear power station, said on Thursday it might help the Islamic Republic construct more atomic plants—dangling a carrot in front of Tehran amid tense diplomacy over its nuclear program.

Oil-producing Iran finally plugged the $1 billion Bushehr nuclear power station into its national grid in September, 19 years after Russia first agreed to build the 1,000-megawatt plant.

Moscow has periodically said it might build more reactors for Iran, which has ambitious plans for atomic power and an active nuclear programme that the United States and its allies fear is aimed at developing weapons. Iran denies it.

The statement by the head of Russia’s state nuclear corporation came as Moscow hosted a senior Iranian official and pleased Tehran by pouring scorn on a U.N. nuclear agency report that deepened Western suspicions about Tehran’s intentions.

“We are working on it, we have a corresponding assignment,” Rosatom chief Sergei Kiriyenko told Prime Minister Vladimir Putin at a meeting of Russia’s inner cabinet.

“As the construction of atomic energy reactors does not provoke doubts among the international community and is not in any way related to sensitive questions, it is fully possible,” Kiriyenko said.

Started by Germany’s Siemens in the 1970s but frozen because of the Iran’s 1979 Islamic Revolution, construction at Bushehr was taken over by Russian engineers in the 1990s.

The United States and allies opposed the project for years, saying it could help Iran develop atomic weapons, but an agreement requiring Iran to return spent fuel that could be used for that purpose eased those concerns.

Russia is part of a group, with the United States, China, Britain, France and Germany, urging Iran to be more transparent about its nuclear program.

But Russia has been softer on Iran than the United States and the European Union, and has worked with China to water down previous U.N. Security Council sanctions.

Russia is calling for a step-by-step process in which existing sanctions would be eased in return for actions by Iran to dispel the concerns it could be seeking nuclear weapons.

By raising the possibility of helping to build new reactors, Russia may be seeking to persuade Iran to embrace its proposal, or at least to revive stalled talks with the six powers.

Ali Baqeri, deputy secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council, said in Moscow on Thursday that Iran had agreed to discuss the step-by-step plan with Russia “more deeply” and in more detail.

But Baqeri avoided comment on what initial steps could be taken under the Russian proposal and gave no indication that Iran was ready for any conciliatory measures.

He said the report by the U.N.‘s nuclear watchdog was baseless, politically motivated and might have been an attempt to undermine Moscow’s proposal to “remove constructive solutions from the agenda.”

“In the IAEA (the U.N.‘s International Atomic Energy Agency) report there is no window for the resolution of questions, no flexibility and no goodwill,” Baqeri told a news conference, speaking through an interpreter.

He said Iran intended to build nuclear power plants providing 20,000 megawatts of electricity within 20 years.

Additional reporting by Darya Korsunskaya; Editing by Andrew Heavens

Will new ‘Cold War’ play out in Middle East?


When Prime Minister Ehud Olmert goes to Moscow next month, his first order of business will be to make sure the Russians don’t sell sophisticated new weaponry to Syria that could alter the military status quo in the Middle East.

Last week, Syrian President Bashar Assad visited Russia to make a pitch for the arms, new anti-aircraft missiles and ground-to-ground rockets that would put all of the Jewish state within range of Damascus.

Though Russia rejected the request, the Russians apparently are prepared to sell Syria other anti-aircraft missiles, state-of-the-art anti-tank missiles and fighter planes.

In January 2005, Vladimir Putin — then Russia’s president and now its prime minister — promised Israel not to sell arms that might upset the strategic balance in the Middle East. So far, Putin has kept that promise.

But with talk of a new Cold War in the offing following Russia’s recent military successes in Georgia, Israel is worried Russia might reassess this policy and use the sale of new weaponry to Syria — or the threat of it — to strengthen Russia’s hand vis-à-vis Israel’s primary ally, the United States.

Some experts are concerned that the growing clash between Russian and U.S. interests will prompt Moscow to feel freer to sell its arms to countries outside the U.S. orbit that also happen to be hostile to Israel. The worst-case scenario, experts say, is that Russia would revert to its Soviet role as Middle East spoiler, fanning the flames of conflict and undermining peace efforts.

Most say, however, that Russia will always stop short of direct confrontation — and the Georgia episode hasn’t changed this approach.

“There is no way the Russians are going back to the Cold War or anything like it,” one Israeli official said on the condition of anonymity.

But Itamar Rabinovich, a former Israeli ambassador to the United States who is now at Tel Aviv University, argues that Russia has emerged much stronger from its Georgia campaign and that this will have repercussions for the Middle East.

In Rabinovich’s view, U.S.-Russian cooperation on Iran is now far less likely, and Russian arms sales to Iran and Syria are much more likely.

Israeli analysts say the Russian military industry long has been pushing for unrestricted weapons sales, but Putin has been wary of selling weapons that could spark regional flare-ups and involve Russia in head-to-head conflict with the West.

In the past, Russia has refrained from selling strategic weapons like the Iskander-E ground-to-ground rocket or the S-300 anti-aircraft missile to Syria.

The Iskandar is far more accurate than the Scud rockets currently in the Syrian arsenal and could pinpoint any target in Israel from Haifa to Eilat. The S-300 has a range of 125 miles and can handle 36 targets at once. Deployed in Damascus, it could threaten aircraft deep inside Israeli airspace.

With Moscow emboldened after its dramatic success in Georgia, some Israeli analysts worry these weapons eventually could find their way to Damascus.

In the telephone conversation last week during which Russian President Dmitry Medvedev invited Olmert to Moscow, the Israeli prime minister bluntly conveyed the extent of Israel’s opposition to any such sale to the Syrians. It would be a pity for Assad to spend billions on arms Israel would be forced to destroy, Olmert reportedly warned Medvedev.

The Russian-Syrian connection goes back to the mid-1950s, when the Soviet Union turned the Arab-Israeli conflict into a proxy war with the United States.

In those days, the Soviets were perceived as a real threat to Israel’s existence and as an obstacle to peace. Syria became Moscow’s chief client state after Egypt expelled the Soviets in 1972 and made peace with Israel in 1979. This changed only in the late 1980s, when Syria no longer could afford to buy conventional weapons from Russia.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Russia pursued a more evenhanded policy in the Middle East. Although it continued to sell arms to Syria, it developed economic ties with Israel worth more than $2 billion a year — a volume of non-military trade that exceeds that between Russia and the entire Arab world.

Israeli officials do not expect this to change much in the wake of the Georgia campaign.

The key question is what the Russians do in Iran. The record so far is not encouraging.

Russia has done little to help stop the Iranian nuclear weapons drive. On the contrary, Russia has signed lucrative contracts to develop Iranian nuclear plants and oil fields; blocked U.N. Security Council proposals for stricter sanctions; built Iran’s Bushehr nuclear reactor; reportedly started supplying Iran with $4 billion worth of air defenses, including S-300 missile systems, to thwart a U.S. or Israeli strike against Iran’s nuclear facilities; and reportedly signed contracts worth about $20 billion to build 20 civilian nuclear power stations by 2020.

Israeli officials believe that Russia ultimately does not want to see Iran with a nuclear bomb — that would threaten Russian interests, too. Rather, Israel expects Russia to try to reap as much economic benefit as possible from its Iranian connections while stopping short of allowing Iran to acquire the bomb.

The question going forward will be whether the tension between Moscow and Washington heats up or cools down.

Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak is hoping any potential Moscow problem can be defused with incentives from the West. During a visit to Washington in July, Barak proposed that the United States give up its planned missile defenses in Eastern Europe in return for a clear-cut Russian commitment on Iran.

The Americans, however, were not convinced.

Emergency aid mission to Georgia: Find every Jew


TBILISI, Georgia (JTA)—Some ran Friday when the bombs fell on Tskhinvali, some on Saturday when they fell on Gori and some on Sunday when the Russian tanks rolled into Georgia proper.

The Jews of Georgia scattered, disappeared and resurfaced in refugee camps, relatives’ homes or at the doors of the synagogue.

As Russia occupied Georgia, pushing ever closer to the capital Tbilisi and bisecting the country, the relief effort for nearly two weeks has had only one prime directive: Find every Jew.

The most recent parallel to the Georgian relief effort, spearheaded by the Jewish communities of Tbilisi and Gori alongside the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee and the Jewish Agency for Israel, would be the 1999 Kosovo conflict, when Jewish groups sought out and provided aid to fewer than 100 Jews in the war-torn area.

The United Jewish Communities, the umbrella of the North American federation system, which provides significant funding for both the JDC and Jewish Agency, has launched an emergency appeal to supplement the annual campaign funding being used to help the Jews in the region. It has raised $17,000, according to UJC officials.

The current conflict has displaced more than 200 families—some 300 individuals—and stranded dozens behind the Russian lines, where transit is nearly impossible and communication lines have fallen apart.

The displaced have made their way to Tbilisi.

After a first wave of frantic immigration to Israel—three El Al flights in the first week evacuated scores of Israeli citizens and dozens of Georgian immigrants—the relief agencies and local Jews are now picking up the pieces and trying to put the rest of the community back together.

In Tbilisi, the first stop for refugees has been the JDC-funded community center in an Armenian district near the city center built in 2003.

For two days, more than 200 families lined up at the window holding stacks of receipts. At the window, Rafael Mesingisen waited to take the receipts and trade them for black bags of food and other necessities.

Mesingisen, 66, is the chairman of the Chabad-led Federation of Jewish Communities of Georgia, which pulls together community leaders from eight Georgian cities with Jewish populations.

Those cities are now rent apart, effectively isolated by the Russian army, which patrols Georgia’s main east-west highway with impunity.

All day Monday and Tuesday, Mesingisen passed the black bags through the window to family after family, most of whom are from Gori. He smiled to everyone from beneath his black kipah as a photo of the Lubavitcher rebbe looked on.

Some of those that made their way to Tbilisi were easy to find, but some had no idea that Jewish organizations were looking for them and wanted to help.

More than 50,000 refugees are scattered across Tbilisi and its environs. Those without family in the capital or special organizations to help them are living in makeshift shelters without beds that smell of days-old perspiration. Or they may be staying in tent camps on the city outskirts.

In this regard, at least, the Georgian Jewish refugees are lucky.

“What do you think? Are you glad to be a Jew today?” Mesingisen asks the refugees at his window. “We’re not happy today, but we’re glad that we were born Jews.”

When the conflict began, Mesingisen got on his phone and started the search, using what is referred to here as “Jewish radio” to mine the social connections of the close-knit communities and bring them back into the fold.

Some Jews fell through the cracks, and JDC officials visited the refugee camps over the weekend looking for stragglers.

Among others, they found the Yosefbashvilis. The five-member family fled Gori on Sunday as the Russian troops crossed into the city. Once in Tbilisi, they registered with the government’s refugee office and were sent to a school, where they stayed two nights with no beds and dozens more refugees.

Two of the three teenagers in Tomas Yosefbashvili’s family study at university in Tbilisi, but they didn’t have anywhere to turn in the capital. Now they have two rooms in a hotel 20 yards from the Jewish community center.

On Tuesday they picked up their food and aid. Before that, they only had their documents and the clothes they were wearing.

“I already knew that the Jewish people were good people, but now I can put a stamp on it,” Yosefbashvili said, referring to the official stamp needed to accomplish anything in former Soviet countries.
Most of the refugees have found shelter with Jewish families in Tbilisi who have opened their homes to their fellow Jews. One family alone is hosting 22 refugees, JDC officials said.

From her office in the corner of the community center, Elen Berkovich has managed another piece of the aid puzzle. As a representative of the Euro-Asian Jewish Congress, she has parsed out thousands of dollars in cash handouts to refugees, ranging from $200 to $500 per family, depending on need.

The funds come from the congress, headed by Kazakh oligarch Alexander Machkevich, but the cash flowed under the urging of Josef Zissels, the congress’ representative in Ukraine—another country eyeing Russia’s actions in Georgia with trepidation.

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev said Sunday that Georgian troops would begin to pull out, but they appear only to have dug deeper into the vital arteries of this mountainous republic.

Relief agencies are preparing for a protracted effort to maintain the well-being of Georgia’s Jews before they can move on with the work of rehabilitation, said Amir Ben Zvi, a Ukraine-based staff member of the JDC’s Georgia operation.

The situation is even more desperate for those on the other side of Russian lines—in Gori and other cities. The road to Gori is lined with Russian snipers, checkpoints and tree-camouflaged tanks.

No Western reporters have been allowed to enter the city through the main road for days and relief workers have been let through sparingly. On Tuesday, Sergey Vlasov made the trip as head of the JDC’s Tbilisi office and a Georgian citizen.

The JDC had a list there of 27 Jews remaining in the city. Vlasov and his driver found all of them, including three Israelis.

After a brief skirmish with Ossetian militia, Vlasov was able to make the trip back to Tbilisi and report to the families of the Gori Jews with whom he spoke. Those still there have no desire to leave, say JDC and Jewish Agency officials, mostly concerned that their property will be looted.

Concerned that their efforts might be stymied, the JDC has signed a mutual cooperation agreement with the Georgian Red Cross to assure continued assistance to the Jews still in need.

The JDC, meanwhile, says the number of Jews in Tbilisi is 4,000 to 4,500, well below the 10,000 estimated by Jewish groups when their latest efforts began.
The Jewish Agency is preparing to send some 50 teenagers from the local communities, at an estimated cost of $1,500 to $1,700 per child, to Israel for a 10-day camp experience. The program, slated for early September, is to provide a respite for 13- to 16-year-olds caught in the conflict.

For certain, the hardest-hit city in the conflict has been the Ossetian capital of Tskhinvali. Russian and Georgian forces leveled the city in fierce fighting as the war broke out.

The city’s two dozen Jews fled north to Russia, but rumors persisted that one Jew—an old woman—had stayed behind.

On Monday, JDC workers in Tbilisi were jubilant: They had found Rivka Rosa Jinjikhashvili, 71, in the middle of the war zone, and someone would be visiting her home to cook a hot meal later that day.

But Jinjikhashvili’s home is in ruins. She has moved to a summer annex nearby, and no one knows when her city will come back to life again around her.

—JTA senior editor Lisa Hostein contributed to this report

Jews trapped on both sides of Russian-Georgian conflict


MOSCOW (JTA) — Vissarion Manasherov left his city as the bombs were falling.

One day later, on Monday, with bombs still falling, he returned to Gori, a city at the edge of war, to convince the few Jewish families still in the area to leave. The Russians were at their doorstep, he told them.

Manasherov, the community’s leader and a local emissary for the Jewish Agency for Israel, said he fled to the Georgian capital of Tbilisi with a wave of 200 Jews, leaving fewer than a dozen compatriots behind.

“I was the last to leave,” he said. “But I went back. And we’ll go back.”

As the conflict between Georgia and Russia moved toward an uneasy stalemate Tuesday, the migration of refugees away from the devastated capital of the breakaway republic of South Ossetia spread farther and more Jews emerged from the fog of war.

Ossetians and Georgians fled north to Russia through a mountain tunnel or south to Tbilisi, while others boarded planes to Israel.

The evacuation effort has been a joint project of international Jewish organizations working in close conjunction with the Israeli government. The Israeli Embassy has become a hub of activity where leaders and refugees have shuttled to and from since the conflict began.

The American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC), one of the agencies working on the ground, estimates that more than 700 Jews have been displaced in recent days.

Jews caught on both sides of the conflict looked back at the damage with starkly different political viewpoints.

“Who’s at fault? Who bombed whom? Who fired the first shot?” Manasherov said by telephone from the Israeli Embassy in Tbilisi. “War is war. It’s hard to say who is right and who is at fault.”

Russia has taken a hard line against Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, branding his initial incursion into South Ossetia as genocide and strongly defending its campaign into undisputed Georgian territory.

Following days of fighting, which left scores of casualties, leaders from Georgia and Russia took tentative steps toward ending the latest conflagration in the war-weary Caucasus region Russia’s largest use of force outside its borders since 1989.

On Tuesday, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev announced an end to attacks beyond Georgia’s border with South Ossetia while Saakashvili pressed a cease-fire agreement. Saakashvili also announced to thousands in Tbilisi that Georgia would leave the Commonwealth of Independent States, an umbrella organization largely controlled by Russia.

The conflagration began Aug. 8 when Russian tanks and soldiers poured into South Ossetia, which fought a war for independence from Georgia in the early 1990s. Russia said it was protecting its citizens and peacekeepers from a Georgian attempt to secure the capital, Tskhinvali.

Saakashvili had made the reunification of Georgia with its breakaway republics a central plank of his campaigns as he cultivated close ties with the West, sending soldiers to U.S.-led wars in Iraq and Afghanistan as well as seeking entry to the NATO alliance.

Saakashvili’s distance from Russia chafed at then-Russian President Vladimir Putin, and Moscow holds little love for the poster child of democracy in the former Soviet sphere.

Amid the uncertainty, Jewish rescue and relief agencies worked throughout the fighting and planned to continue their work to assist refugees in need.

The Jewish Agency helped evacuate 31 Georgians to Israel aboard special flights Tuesday. The agency said others have applied to make aliyah and their paperwork is being expedited.

Alex Katz, the Jewish Agency’s emissary to the former Soviet Union, accompanied Gori’s community leader Manasherov to the city on Monday and saw columns of Georgian troops leaving the city.

“The situation is tense now very, very tense,” Katz said. “We are used to this as Israelis, but it is a very complicated situation now.”

The JDC, meanwhile, has eight representatives in the region helping to locate and rescue local Jews, as well as provide food and medical relief in both Georgia and Russia.

The head regional representative said the JDC had helped evacuate a Jewish family from a bombed-out building in Gori on Monday.

Most of the more than 200 Georgian Jewish refugees who have made their way to Tbilisi are staying with relatives and friends there. Between 10,000 to 12,000 Jews live in Georgia, mostly in the capital.

The local Chabad community, headed by Rabbi Avraham Michaelashvili, organized a three-day blood drive for victims, and Chabad rabbis have worked to ensure safe passage for a group of 50 Israeli tourists vacationing on the Black Sea, according to reports from the Chabad Web site.

Georgian troops withdrew Sunday from South Ossetia, a pro-Russian de facto state since 1992. Russia has issued passports to South Ossetian citizens for years and served as a peacekeeping force in the region.

Before wave after wave of ethnic conflict shook the foundations of Tskhinvali starting in 1992, there was a growing Jewish community of more than 2,000 people in the city of 30,000.

The JDC listed the number of Jews in Tskhinvali at 19, as of one month ago. Nothing was heard for days from these refugees.

But the JDC representative in Vladikavkaz, the Russian regional capital closest to the conflict, said they had located five of the Tskhinvali Jews, including girls aged 6 and 16. The girls had made their way to the Russian city with the younger girl’s grandmother after spending several days huddled in a basement without food or water.

The representative, who spoke on condition of anonymity owing to safety concerns, said the experience of hiding from the shelling in the Ossetian capital had badly shaken the teenager.

On the Russian border, the representative said the Russian government was refusing help from international aid organizations and JDC was the only nongovernmental organization operating in Vladikavkaz.

Mark Petrushansky, the chairman of the Vladikavkaz Jewish community, said emotions were running high on the Russian side of the conflict, stoked by sometimes shocking images on television of the aftermath in Tskhinvali.

Petrushansky said he saw television footage of a Jewish child he knew from a local school fleeing Tskhinvali with her grandmother to Russia. Incensed, he placed the blame on Georgia and Saakashvili for starting “this horrible massacre.”

Georgia on his mind


Will Europe Back Hamas Sans Conditions?


Cracks are showing in the international demands on Hamas to recognize Israel and renounce terrorism before it takes over the Palestinian Authority.

Ignoring the preconditions, Russian President Vladimir Putin has offered to host leaders of the radical Islamic group in Moscow, prompting similar overtures from elsewhere in Europe.

“We believe that it is an initiative that can contribute to advancing our positions,” French Foreign Ministry spokesman Denis Simonneau was quoted as saying late last week in the Israeli newspaper, Ha’aretz. “We share with Russia the goal of leading Hamas toward positions that would allow for the goal of two states living in peace and security to be reached.

There was consternation in Israel, which had hoped to parlay Hamas’ unexpected victory in last month’s Palestinian Authority election into a chance to make the Palestinian terrorist group embrace a new political pragmatism.

While some foreign analysts wrote off Putin’s move as a bid to boost his diplomatic standing, many Israelis predicted it would spell the end of the “road map” to peaceful coexistence with the Palestinians, which had been co-sponsored by Russia.

“As far as Israel is concerned, the Quartet, which adopted the road map in 2003, now becomes a ‘Trio’ whose members are the United States, European Union and United Nations,” analyst Ze’ev Schiff wrote in Ha’aretz.

Fending off a hailstorm of Israeli criticism — as well as a possible showdown with Washington — Russia insisted it only wanted to help tame Hamas.

“We will ask Hamas to change their position according to the latest decisions of the Quartet, which are recognition of Israel, rejection of terrorism and execution of the Palestinian Authority’s past agreements” with Israel, said Russia’s Middle East envoy, Alexander Kalugin.

Such declarations did little to convince Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, who has worked to persuade the international community that Hamas reform must precede its recognition abroad.

“First they start with talks, after that they ‘try to understand.’ Then give money, then legitimacy. This is what we must act against,” she told Israel Radio.

“This is a black-and-white situation,” Livni said. “The biggest problem is that Hamas does not accept the terms of the Quartet.”

There’s also the matter of funding for the Palestinian Authority (PA). The 25-member-state European Union, which gave the PA some $600 million in 2005, is the PA’s single largest source of financial support.

The initial EU stance toward Hamas could be found in the clear-cut words of German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who during a recent visit with PA President Mahmoud Abbas said Germany would not speak to Hamas until it renounced terrorism and recognized Israel’s right to exist.

Acting Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, the front-runner in Israel’s March 28 general election, assumed a resigned tone over the Russian move. But he told his Cabinet that once the new Palestinian Authority Parliament is formed — beginning next weekend — “the rules of the game will change.” The remarks were interpreted as a threat that Israel could sanction a future Hamas-led government by refusing to hand over taxes collected on behalf of the Palestinian Authority. Despite the pressure piled upon it, Hamas insists it has no plan to change its charter — calling for jihad against the Jewish state — or give up its weapons. At best, some Hamas leaders have offered Israel an extended truce — cold comfort given that the group’s theosophy predicts Zionism’s end by the early 2020s.

Some Israelis predict that Hamas will end up paying at least lip service to the idea of peace, which will be eagerly welcomed by an international community feeling hard-pressed by the U.S.-led “war on terror” and the more recent Danish cartoon furor.

“Hamas will say something out of the corner of its mouth,” predicted Ma’ariv’s editor in chief, Amnon Dankner, in a front-page commentary. “A hazy bit of mumbling with deliberate dissembling, in order to allow the world to establish ties with it, talk to it, and recommend it to Israel as a negotiating partner.” Dinah A. Spritzer contributed to this article.

 

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