Russian president Vladimir Putin made a bizarre appearance on Russian television Thursday, during which he admitted for the first time that Russian troops – operating illegally out of uniform – were present in Crimea before it held an independence “referendum” that has been denounced as a sham by the international community. Until now, Putin has insisted the mysterious out-of-uniform forces that seized control of strategic locations across Crimea were entirely and solely composed of local self-defense militia forces.
Putin asserted, without evidence, that ethnic Russians in Crimea were in danger of assault by the Ukrainian government. “They had 20,000 well-armed Ukrainian troops,” he said, as translated by the Washington Post. “We had to protect the civilian population from even the slightest opportunity of those weapons being used against them.”
Which is exactly what he’s been saying about eastern Ukraine, where several cities are currently dealing with pro-Russian insurrectionists. But don’t worry, because Putin said there are no Russian operatives fomenting any of that unrest, and you can totes believe him this time. Even though he’s been authorized by his parliament to attack, he doesn’t want to use force in eastern Ukraine… an area he referred to as “New Russia.” Then he said it was a mistake for the Soviet Union to cede that area to Ukraine years ago, for which said Soviet leaders would be judged by God.
He also accused the Ukrainian government of war crimes for deploying armor against the insurrectionists, who attacked a Ukrainian military base in the city of Mariupol, resulting in three deaths; seized control of Slaviansk; and announced an independence referendum for a new “People’s Republic of Donetsk,” over the last few days. The big Ukrainian counter-insurgency operation announced Tuesday ended when six armored vehicles dispatched to Donetsk turned up in Slaviansk, flying Russian flags and playfully spinning donuts in the middle of the street. As “war crimes” go, this one doesn’t seem very fearsome.
Putin also took a call from a completely unexpected, totally random viewer of Russian television, whose call he could not possibly have seen coming. Talking Points Memo has a more precise transcription of this exchange, which took place in English, than the one provided by the Washington Post:
Russian President Vladimir Putin held his annual televised call-in show on Thursday and was asked a question by one very special guest — Edward Snowden.
“I’ve seen little public discussion of Russia’s own involvement in the policies of mass surveillance,” Snowden said. “So I’d like to ask you, does Russia intercept, store or analyze in any way the communications of millions of individuals? And do you believe that simply increasing the effectiveness of intelligence or law enforcement investigations can justify placing societies, rather than subjects, under surveillance?”
Putin, a former KGB agent, set the tone by treating Snowden as something like an equal.
“Mr. Snowden, you are a former agent, a spy. I used to be working for an intelligence service,” he said, according to RT’s on-air translator. “We are going to talk one professional language.”
He went on to outline how Russia’s surveillance activities differ from those of the National Security Agency.
“First of all, our intelligence efforts are strictly regulated by our law,” Putin said. “So how special forces can use this kind of special equipment as they intercept phone calls or follow someone online, you have to get court permission to stalk a particular person. We don’t have a mass system of such interception. And according to our law, it cannot exist.”
“Of course we know that criminals and terrorists use technology for their criminal acts, and of course special services have to use technical means to respond to their crimes … but we do not have mass-scale, uncontrollable efforts like that,” he added. “I hope we won’t do that, and we don’t have as much money as they have in the States and we don’t have these technical devices that they have in the States. Our special services, thank God, are strictly controlled by the society and the law, and are regulated by the law.”
Snowden then shouted “Hail Hydra!” and raised both fists in salute, prompting a laconic Putin to groan, “Alright, alright, put your arms down, Snowden. You look like a West Texas cheerleader at a pep rally.”
Okay, maybe I made that last bit up, but I’m not going to let Vladimir Putin hog all the fantasy fun. He is, of course, being less than candid about Russian surveillance, as his sock puppet Edward Snowden’s favorite newspaper can tell you. Next up: monitoring systems at subway stations in Moscow that can read the SIM cards in smartphones from twenty feet away. Maybe they’ll install those systems at the subway stations in New Russia, too.
Update: A little taste of what things might be like in the “People’s Republic of Donetsk,” as masked men post notices near a synagogue ordering the local Jews to register with the separatists forces occupying government buildings, paying a fee and listing all the property they own, or face deportation. This has been dismissed as the work of freelance provocateurs by some news sources, although the notices looked official, with the seal of the new self-proclaimed government and signature of its governor. It should go without saying that in this day and age, anyone can whip up an official-looking proclamation on their computer, and paste in a signature. The new “government” appears to have borrowed some unfortunate imagery from a Pink Floyd video for its seal.
Update: For the benefit of those trying to figure out if the “Jews must register” letter pictured above is genuine or not, I’ve seen some chatter in CNN’s Twitter feed that the United States ambassador to Ukraine said it seems to be “the real deal,” while at least one Jewish organization in Donetsk believes it is a fake. Third possibility: it’s not an authentic product of the self-proclaimed revolutionary government in Donetsk, but the people who made it mean business, and they’re numerous enough to be concerned about.
Update: The plot thickens… Denis Pushilin, the “chairman” of the insurrectionist government, says the anti-Semitic flyers were “distributed under his organization’s name, but denied any connection to them,” according to Ynet, by way of USA Today. These things weren’t just nailed to trees and signposts – they were handed to Jews by masked thugs as they came out of synagogue.
The big question would then be, “Who are the masked thugs working for?” Michael Salberg of the Anti-Defamation League has some thoughts about the third possibility I mentioned above:
Michael Salberg, director of the international affairs at the New York City-based Anti-Defamation League, said it’s unclear if the leaflets were issued by the pro-Russian leadership or a splinter group operating within the pro-Russian camp.
But the Russian side has used the specter of anti-Semitism in a cynical manner since anti-government protests began in Kiev that resulted in the ousting of Ukraine’s pro-Russian former president Viktor Yanukovych. Russia and its allies in Ukraine issued multiple stories about the the threat posed to Jews by Ukraine’s new pro-Western government in Kiev, Salberg said.
Those stories were based in part on ultra-nationalists who joined the Maidan protests, and the inclusion of the ultra-nationalist Svoboda party in Ukraine’s new interim government. But the threat turned out to be false, he said.
Svoboda’s leadership needs to be monitored, but so far it has refrained from anti-Semitic statements since joining the government, he said. And the prevalence of anti-Semitic acts has not changed since before the Maidan protests, according to the ADL and the Ukrainian Helsinki Human Rights Union, which monitors human rights in Ukraine.
Distributing such leaflets is a recruitment tool to appeal to the xenophobic fears of the majority, “to enlist them to your cause and focus on a common enemy, the Jews,” Salberg said.