When a 10-ton meteorite exploded over Chelyabinsk, Russia on Friday, Feb. 15, it injured more than 1,500 people, caused $30 million in damage, and sparked nearly 3,000 financial aid applications from residents. Now, it seems, Russians -- including government officials -- are trying to get that money back, using the very rock that caused the losses in the first place.
This week, authorities in Chelyabinsk announced a design contest for a memorial to mark the "interplanetary visit," and also unveiled plans to develop a logo that entrepreneurs can slap on calendars, magnets, booklets, and other souvenirs. The region's geography and history museum, meanwhile, has already opened an exhibition on the meteorite that will include photos, videos, and meteorite fragments. "The authorities say they will try to make the memory of last Friday's event a great tourist attraction," the Voice of Russia reported.
Then there's the mayor of Chebarkul, who has himself tried to dig up some meteorite fragments by sending divers into the town's lake, where the meteor crashed. And he recently tried to galvanize his constituents by launching a competition for business ideas that would allow Chebarkul to profit from the global attention. The window may be closing fast, though, since Russian scientists say the fragments will soon be covered by snow or blown away by the wind.
Efforts to capitalize on the meteor strike got underway almost as soon as the extraterrestrial stone blew up, spewing tiny fireballs that buried themselves just inches deep in the ground and quickly cooled into little collectibles. Residents rushed to the scene of the explosion and began to dig up bits of meteorite that were often no larger than a centimeter. Apparently enough people were eager to see the meteor that some locals started taxiing them over for a steep price.
Many of the fragments have made their way onto the Russian classified ad website Avito.ru, where prices range from 500 to 300,000 rubles ($16 to $10,000), though the size of the fragments doesn't vary nearly as much. But meteorite aficionados beware: Many of the space particles for sale are raising some eyebrows, and Chelyabinsk police have already looked into a local man who has sold a few chunks for 15,000 rubles ($492) apiece that they believe could be fakes. Given the uncertainty, you might be better off with a good old-fashioned souvenir.
This morning, Russians in Chelyabinsk, an industrial city 950 miles east of Moscow, were jolted awake when a meteor exploded in the sky, producing shockwaves that shattered windows, set off car alarms, and injured at least 500 people. The meteor was traveling at 19 miles per second, according to Russian authorities, before exploding mid-air, likely as a result of the immense heat generated as a large object speeds through the atmosphere.
On the ground in Chelyabinsk, Russians witnessed a scene that must have seemed ripped out of an apocalyptic film, as a bright, flaming object suddenly appeared in the sky, streaked across the horizon, and unleashed a bone-rattling shockwave. The extraordinary developments were captured on video, in part through the automobile dash-cams that are nearly ubiquitous in Russia.
Below, we've compiled a selection of some of the best videos of the meteor shower, along with translations of the reactions of the stunned Russians on the ground.
At 1:40, the speaker says that there was an extremely bright flash going across the sky. Once the blast can be heard he says, "What the hell? ... Something fell. Do you hear? You know what that was? It was supersonic. It must have been an asteroid, and that's the blast wave." At 2:38, the speaker exclaims, "What the fuck?" They look at the broken windows and say it's like something out of the war. Then, another speaker says, "It must have been a rocket or something." While they're cursing up a storm, one of his friends says, "It must have been the Chinese!"
The video below gives a sense of the magnitude of the blast's shockwave.
This video, shot across the border from Kazakhstan about 200 miles from Chelyabinsk, shows how far from the city the meteoroid could be seen.
The blast blew out windows in Chelyabinsk. The closed-circuit video below gives a sense of how many Chelyabinsk residents likely experienced the meteoroid.
This video of a street in Chelyabinsk, which doesn't capture the direct path of the meteoroid, shows how the meteoroid lit up the street, casting a veritable klieg light on an entire city block.
This video compilation shows how residents experienced the meteroid across the city, and includes footage from a Chelyabinsk school right after the explosion was felt on the ground.
In late December, Vladimir Putin signed a bill banning American adoptions of Russian orphans. Over 60,000 Russian children have been adopted by American parents since the end of the Soviet Union, and over 120,000 Russian orphans remain eligible for adoption today. While Russian state media is fixated on a handful of these adoptions that turned out badly for the children involved, this bill is explicitly framed as retaliation against the U.S. Senate's Magnitsky Act, which bars certain Russian officials accused of human rights abuses from entering the United States.
In the video below, Robert Wright speaks with Howard Amos, a reporter for The Moscow Times who has worked in a Russian orphanage. Amos describes the sad conditions facing Russian orphans, who are now much less likely to find a new home:
MAXIM MARMUR/AFP/Getty Images
On Tuesday, Al-Watan, a Saudi newspaper, quoted Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov saying that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad had agreed to step down after months of trying to quash the Syrian uprising. It's not unusual for public figures to take back inflammatory statements after they make them. But in this case, the Russian foreign ministry is denying that the interview happened at all.
According to Al-Arabiya, Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said in a public statement on Tuesday:
"We would like to point out that this report does not correspond with reality, and the Russian special envoy gave no such interview."
Zakharova also claimed that there was a "propaganda war" being waged over Syria and accused media outlets of disseminating "blatant disinformation."
In an attempt to defend its credibility, Al-Watan published a recording of the alleged interview on its website. The speaker, who identifies himself as Bogdanov, also claims (in remarkably fluent Arabic) that Assad's brother, Maher al-Assad, had lost his legs in the July bombing of a key government headquarters in Damascus and was "fighting for his life." According to the AFP, the voice on the recording "sounded different from the voice of Bogdanov in videos available online."
The Al-Watan story was picked up by quite a few news outlets, most of which have since amended their reports after the Russian statement. A few Israeli and Arab news outlets continue to post their original stories on the incident.
On another front of the Syrian misinformation war, the Reuters blogging platform was hacked yet again on Wednesday. This time, the hackers falsely posted a report stating that Saudi Arabia's Foreign Minister, Prince Saud al-Faisal, had died.
As Foreign Policy posted earlier this month, hackers supporting the Syrian opposition had previously hijacked one of the Reuters blogs on August 3, posting false reports of rebel gains in Syria. In a separate incident, pro-regime hackers fought back on August 5 by commandeering a Reuters Twitter account, which they used to tweet about a rebel collapse in Aleppo and accuse the White House of providing arms to al-Qaeda militants in Syria.
All this lends at least some credibility to the Russian claim of a propaganda battle over the Syrian uprising. If there is a war of disinformation, it would seem that the worst casualties are the media organizations whose reputations have been damaged, sometimes by cyberattacks, sometimes by failure to thoroughly verify information.
KHALED DESOUKI/AFP/Getty Images
Government-funded outlet Russia Today reports that religious activists in a southern Russian city have called for national ban on Facebook after the popular social media website introduced a new icon system that represented gay couples through the use of gender-appropriate stick figures. Warning that website was "flirting with sodomites," organizers in Saratov delivered a statement to Facebook's Russian headquarters demanding the website remove all content related to "gay propaganda."
Facebook, unsurprisingly, ignored the ultimatum, spurring organizers to escalate their efforts. "We demand only one thing: Facebook should be blocked in the entire country because it openly popularizes homosexuality among minors," campaign organizer Vladimir Roslyakovsky told reporters. "The U.S. goal is that Russians stop having children. [They want] the great nation to turn into likeness of Sodom and Gomorrah."
Laws restricting gay rights have been on the rise in Russia. The European Human Rights Court's 2010 ruling against the Russian government's ban on gay pride events has been largely ignored and in March, St. Petersburg criminalized "the propaganda of homosexuality and pedophilia among minors," imposing a fine of 5,000 to 50,000 rubles for any found guilty of vaguely-defined "public action." Siberia's regional legislature quickly followed suit in April and the regions of Novosibirsk and Arkhangelsk have imposed similar restrictions. Requests for legal permits to hold Gay Rights Parades have been revoked or denied and illegal protesters arrested in what Human Rights Watch has labeled a systematic breach of international law.
With the Duma reportedly contemplating national action, it's not surprising that anti-gay activists are feeling optimistic. "I am confident that Russian laws and reasonable citizens will be able to protect their children from a fierce attack of sodomites," Roslyakovsky concluded.
When U.S. President John F. Kennedy turned 45, Marilyn Monroe performed her infamous rendition of "happy birthday" in Madison Square Garden. When Russian President Vladimir Putin turned 58, he received an erotic calendar from young journalists in Moscow. But when Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych turned 62 yesterday, he received...well, a fake Belarusian visa and a book on the "Basics of Ukrainophobia:" gifts from angry activists to ridicule his Belarusian roots and party's most recent legislation.
No doubt, his celebration's been a little less sultry and lot more politically heated. Widespread discontent over the recent "language bill," passed last Monday, July 3, has fueled protests throughout Ukraine and exaggerated tensions between Ukraine's Russian-speaking East and Ukrainian-speaking West. Approved by 248 of the 364 legislators present for the vote, the bill officially recognizes "regional" languages where they're spoken by at least ten percent of the population and permits their official use of in legal discourse, business, and education.
Yanukovych, who grew up in the Russian speaking Donetsk Oblast and represents the pro-Russian Part of the Regions, pledged to make Russian a second official language during his campaign, but the vote was still a shock for many Ukrainians. In response to what's been deemed "a lightning vote," the speaker of Ukraine's parliament and leader of the opposition People's Party -- Volodymyr Lytvyn - resigned. Rather than accept the resignation of its leader, parliament voted Friday to adjourn for the summer and delay discussion of the bill.
Citing article Article 10 of the Ukrainian constitution which requires that the state "ensure comprehensive development and functioning of the Ukrainian language in all spheres of social life throughout the entire territory of Ukraine," critics charge that the bill is a blatant attempt to undermine Ukraine's language and sovereignty in favor of Russia - an all too familiar criticism for Yanukovych who's been ridiculed as the Kremlin's pawn in the past.
While the jury's still out on the future of the bill, it seems like Yanukovych may need to work on his birthday plans. Last year, he simply asked for "hard workers."
Russia and Israel may disagree on Iran's nuclear program, but President Vladimir Putin and his entourage of about 400 officials and businessmen were warmly welcomed by Israeli officials during the Russian leader's first visit to the country in seven years. Upon arriving at the Ben Gurion Airport in Tel Aviv, Putin was "greeted by Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman and an IDF honor parade." Later that day, he attended an inauguration ceremony in Netanya for a memorial to the Soviet Red Army soldiers killed in World War II, along with Lieberman, President Shimon Peres, and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. Speaking at the ceremony, Putin invoked Russia as both war and peacemaker:
"Russia who so greatly helped win the war is the same Russia that can help peace in the Middle East."
Putin's agenda also included a stop at the Western Wall in Jerusalem, but his 24-hour tour made plenty of time for discussions with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Defense Minister Ehud Barak, and other Israeli officials about regional issues -- namely Iran and Syria. According to the New York Times, Netanyahu said during a joint news conference that he and Putin "agreed that the prospect of a nuclear-armed Iran ‘presents a grave danger first of all to Israel, and to the region and the world as a whole.'"
Israeli officials, however, are not optimistic that their concerns will have any impact on Russian policy:
"Let's not exaggerate. It is a very brief visit," said a senior Israeli official who spoke on the condition of anonymity for reasons of diplomacy. He added, "Do not expect any major breakthrough."
According to Haaretz, Peres did not have much success with Putin at the state dinner that evening:
"President Shimon Peres pressed Putin further, asking that he ‘raise his voice' against a nuclear Iran. Putin responded by saying that Russia has a ‘national interest' to secure peace and quiet in Israel but did not elaborate further."
Despite the fact that talks about Iran were more process than substance, Tel Aviv University Russia specialist Boris Morozof notes that Israel and Russia do have "points of common interest," such as military technology, counterterrorism, and Israel's vast natural gas fields.
On Tuesday, Putin traveled to the West Bank, where he "inaugurated a Russian cultural and language center in Bethlehem" and toured the Church of Nativity. He also told President Mahmoud Abbas that Russia "has no problem recognizing a Palestinian state," called his Palestinian counterpart's position on negotiations with Israel "responsible," and referenced Israeli unilateral actions as "not constructive."
Russia is a member of the Middle East Quartet, a diplomatic body charged with mediating the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, whose members also include the U.S., the U.N., and the EU. The Quartet has made little progress since its inception in 2002, but Abbas reportedly "called for an international peace conference to take place in Moscow."
Jim Hollander - Pool / Getty Images
Russian President Vladimir Putin doesn't choose his foreign visits lightly. On May 31, Putin makes his first trip abroad since being inaugurated for a third term as president on May 7, to neighboring Belarus. The visit is highly symbolic of Russia's desire to be the leader in the post-Soviet space, as well as Putin's continued support for the authoritarian president of Belarus, Alexander Lukashenko (also known as "Europe's Last Dictator"). Afterwards, Putin will head to Germany and France, Russia's major trading partners in the EU. After the European visits, Putin will fly to speak with Uzbek ruler Islam Karimov in Tashkent, to Beijing, and finally to Astana, Kazakhstan, to meet with long-time ruler Nursultan Kazarbayev; countries central to Putin's vision of a Eurasian Union.
Earlier in the month, Putin suddenly declined to attend the G8 Summit in Camp David, under pretext that he was too busy forming a new Cabinet of Ministers, sending instead Prime Minister Medvedev. The move was widely seen as a snub to President Obama, as Putin avoided a meeting with the president, and sidestepped making the U.S. his first foreign visit. A few days later, Obama announced he would not be able to attend the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation conference in Vladivostok this September, because it conflicted with the Democratic Party convention.
Putin has now also taken the opportunity to snub the UK, by announcing he will not attend the opening of the London 2012 Olympics, even though the 2014 Winter Olympics will be held on Russian territory in Sochi. Likely, Medvedev will once again be sent in his stead. Russian-British relations have been tense since the 2006 poisoning of ex-KGB agent Alexander Litvinenko in London. Moreover the West has been pressuring Russian officials over the 2009 death of anti-corruption lawyer Sergei Magnitsky while he was detained in prison. Putin's foreign trip destinations are by no means accidental.
This week, the campaign was unexpectedly dominated by a debate over Russia policy. The back-and-forth was sparked by an embarrassing "hot mic" incident on Monday at a summit on Seoul, when President Barack Obama told Russian President Dmitry Medvedev that he would have more "space" to tackle controversial issues such as missile defense after the election. "This is my last election. After my election I have more flexibility," he told the outgoing Russian leader, who promised to "transmit this information to Vladimir."
Mitt Romney was quick to seize on the incident to bolster his argument that Obama has ignored the security threat posed by Russia. He went a bit over the top with the rhetoric, however, telling CNN's Wolf Blitzer that "this is without question our No. 1 geopolitical foe, they fight every cause for the world's worst actors, the idea that he has more flexibility in mind for Russia is very, very troubling indeed."
Democrats -- and a few Republicans -- disputed the notion that Russia is the nation's primary foe. "You don't have to be a foreign policy expert to know that the Cold War ended 20 years ago and that the greatest threat that the president has been fighting on behalf of the American people is the threat posed by al Qaeda," White House spokesman Josh Earnest told reporters.
Romney doubled down on his charge against the president with an op-ed in Foreign Policy, writing that "In his dealings with the Kremlin, as in his dealings with the rest of the world, President Obama has demonstrated breathtaking weakness -- and given the word ‘flexibility' a new and ominous meaning."
A group of Romney's senior advisors also published an open-letter on the website of the National Review detailing a list of the president's main foreign policy failings. The Obama campaign's senior foreign policy advisors pushed pushed back with a letter to Romney published in FP demanding that Romney "clarify exactly how and why you would depart from many of President Obama's policies."
Romney even got into it with Medvedev himself this week. The Russian president said the candidate's rhetoric "smacks of Hollywood" and advised him to "check his watch" to see that it's no longer the 1970s. The Romney campaign struck back with a press release calling him "President Medvedev (D-Russia)" and accusing him of "campaigning for Obama."
Santorum's Jelly Belly foreign policy
Rick Santorum chose an unusual venue on Thursday for a national security-focused address meant to reinvigorate his struggling campaign: The Jelly Belly headquarters in Fairfield, California. Attempting to associate himself with the foreign-policy acumen of GOP icon and famous jellybean fiend Ronald Reagan, Santorum made the case that "Of all of the failings of this administration, of all of the failings, perhaps the greatest is on national security."
Santorum also seized on the hot mic gaffe: "Ronald Reagan didn't whisper to Gorbachev, ‘Give me some flexibility.... He walked out of Iceland and said, ‘You either do this, or we have no deal.'"
H.W. goes all in
While Santorum while trying to channel the Gipper, his vice-president and successor George H.W. Bush officially endorsed Romney -- no surprise as he had publicly praised the candidate earlier in the race and his son Jeb endorsed last week. The 87-year-old (mis)quoted Kenny Rogers when asked about Romney's rivals, saying, ‘It's time when to hold ‘em and time when to fold ‘em."
The meeting raised questions as to when George W. Bush will make an endorsement in the race. "I haven't met with President George W. Bush. We speak from time to time," Romney said.
Newt loses his sugar daddy
The struggling campaign of Newt Gingrich, who has won only South Carolina and his home state of Georgia so far, has been kept afloat by the largesse of Las Vegas casino magnate Sheldon Adelson. The staunch Israel hawk has donated over $20 million to Gingrich's Super PAC. It appears, however, that Adelson's generosity has its limits. Speaking at the Jewish Federations of North America's annual TribeFest conference in Las Vegas this week, the billionaire said this week that Gingrich may be "at the end of the line" since mathematically, "he can't get anywhere near the number" of delegates needed. Adelson has reportedly been reaching out to supporters of the Romney campaign.
Gingrich, the onetime frontrunner, laid off one-third of his staff this week.
Is Paul coming around to Romney?
Ron Paul, currently running in fourth place with a total of 50 delegates in the bag, has previously suggested that foreign policy might be an obstacle to him throwing his support behind Romney. This week, however, Paul paid the frontrunner the mildest of compliments in an interview with Bloomberg television: "I think Mitt Romney is more likely to be more willing to listen to his advisers.... If he decides he wants to go and bomb Iran, maybe he might listen to somebody else. I'm afraid the other [candidates] would just go do it anyway."
What to watch for:
Maryland, Wisconsin, and the District of Columbia hold primaries on Tuesday. Romney is favored to win all three contests. (Santorum isn't on the ballot in D.C.)
After that, it's a long wait until a set of five northeastern primaries on April 23. Santorum's Gotterdämmerung may very well come in his home state of Pennsylvania, where the latest polls show him in a statistical dead heat with Romney.
The latest from FP:
Romney's Russia op-ed.
The Obama campaign's response.
Scott Clement says that Americans really don't think of Russia as an enemy anymore.
Daniel Drezner on the dirty, little secret of second-term presidents.
Michael Cohen argues the president's real constitutional overreach wasn't healthcare, it was Libya.
In honor of Santorum's Jelly Belly address, Uri Friedman recaps the year in political food fights.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has an interesting definition of the word "provocative." After meeting with Secretary of State Hilary Clinton at the U.N. this week, Lavrov commented on March 14 that the recent resumption of U.S.-Georgia military exercises "seems somewhat provocative."
This might make sense if only Russia wasn't organizing military exercises of its own in the Caucasus. In December 2011, Russia announced a new strategic command-and-staff exercise, "Caucasus 2012," to take place in September 2012. The purpose is to prepare for a possible Israeli attack on Iran (and the potential repercussions in the Caucasus region). The exercises are to involve all areas of the armed forces, and will take place not only in the Russian territories of the North Caucasus, but also in neighboring Armenia, as well as the Georgian breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia (over which the 2008 war was fought).
It also conveniently occurs right before the scheduled parliamentary elections in Georgia for October 2012. The Georgian Foreign Ministry is obviously skeptical of these "military exercises" on its borders, claiming Russia is "seeking to instigate a permanent state of tension" in the region.
Then again, Russian foreign affairs rhetoric isn't exactly known for its consistency. Last year, during the NATO decision-making to provide the Libyan rebels with military assistance against Qadaffi, Russia's NATO ambassador Dimitri Rogozin commented that creating a no-fly zone over Libyan air space was "a serious interference into the domestic affairs of another country." Similar words came from Putin himself, who described the NATO mission as a "medieval call for a crusade ... [that] allows intervention in a sovereign state."
Ah, Putin condemning foreign military intervention
in a sovereign state. How quickly he forgot his intentions
KIRILL KUDRYAVTSEV/AFP/Getty Images
North Korean leader Kim Jong Il traveled to Russia this week, his first visit to his country's former Cold War ally in nine years. Kim rode an armored train to eastern Siberia to meet with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, crossing the Russian border on Sunday, Aug. 21, touring the Bureyskaya hydroelectric power station, and meeting with Medvedev on Wednesday. Medvedev flew 3,500 miles across Russia to a Siberian military base for the meeting.
Kim promised Medvedev a moratorium on the production and testing of nuclear weapons, a move that could help restart nuclear disarmament talks, stalled in 2009. North Korea has been isolated both economically and diplomatically since March 2009, when it conducted a second nuclear weapons test. Both the United States and South Korea demand concrete action from North Korea before they return to the six-party talks.
Kim's weeklong trip to Russia is also expected to focus on trade talks and gaining economic and political support from Russia. North Korea is facing chronic food shortages and factory closures thanks to punishing international sanctions. Russia pledged 50,000 tons of wheat to North Korea and also discussed energy and infrastructure projects, including a pipeline carrying Russian gas to South Korea through the North.
According to the Christian Science Monitor, Kim is also concerned about the downfall of Libyan leader Muammar al-Qaddafi and Middle East unrest in general. While North Korean media has not been reporting on the Arab Spring, news of the uprisings has been spread through radios and word of mouth from people who have illegally crossed into China and back. "That dynamic is probably much more alarming to Kim Jong Il than anything else," Lee Jong-min, dean of international studies at Yonsei University in Seoul, told the Monitor. "He's prompted by the need to bolster his power."
Kim has visited China five times since 2002, the year of his last trip to Russia, when he met with then-President Vladimir Putin.
More photos below the jump:
In the run-up to yesterday's debt ceiling deal between Congress and the White House, there was a lot of frustrated reaction from world leaders fearful of what a U.S. debt crisis could mean for their own economies. But Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin might have just won the prize for the strongest response so far. Today, he told a Russian youth group that the United States was "like a parasite" on the world economy.
They are living beyond their means and shifting a part of the weight of their problems to the world economy ... They are living like parasites off the global economy and their monopoly of the dollar ... Thank god that they had enough common sense and responsibility to make a balanced decision.
Russia holds a large amount of U.S. bonds and treasuries, which means had the United States defaulted, it too would have been in trouble. There was clearly some relief this morning, following the news of yesterday's agreement. Both of Moscow's stock exchanges opened up about two percent -- though, they later declined due to investor doubts about the Washington plan.
In today's speech, Putin said Russia should look for other reserve currencies to hedge against "a systemic malfunction in the U.S. economy," according to the Wall Street Journal.
What options do they have besides the dollar? The Journal reports that last year Russian President Dmitry Medvedev held talks with Chinese leaders exploring the possibility of moving reserve assets into the yuan and away from the dollar.
Russia cut back its purchases of U.S. treasuries in recent months -- down from $176 billion in October, 2010 to $115 billion in May. Still, they are unlikely to completely bail on the U.S. market any time soon since Russian officials concede it is still a safer bet than other world economies.
So, the Kremlin will most certainly be dealing with the U.S. "parasite" for the foreseeable future.
Do you like the news? Do you like rap music? Then how about news … in the form of rap music!
That's the airtight logic behind RIA Novosti's Rap Info, which features rappers delivering the news in Russian. Among its fans is none other than Russian president Dmitri Medvedev himself. Russia Today reported last month on Medvedev's visit to the RIA Novosti studios:
Medvedev was impressed by the multimedia capabilities. However, he was even more interested in RIA's new project: Rap Info. Within the framework of the project, musicians "recite" news in the rap musical style. Some recent stories include a report about a "flasher" on producer Nikita Mikhalkov's car and the trial of former Yukos head Mikhail Khodorkovsky. And while the president laughed out loud to the rap about Mikhalkov, the "recital" about Khodorkovsky (in which authors included Medvedev's words from the press conference in Skolkovo, during which he said that the ex-head of Yukos "is not a threat" to society) only brought a simple smile.
"That's a good idea," noted Medvedev, after hearing the entire production. "We need to hold press conferences in the rap style. I'll think about what can be recorded in this format."
"Perhaps the budget address?", suggested one of the agency's staff members, referring to the president's scheduled address next week.
"Yes, that would be great!", agreed Medvedev. "The most boring topic you could imagine."
Sean Gallup/Getty Images
Yes, Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin is a man's man, and it's driving the ladies crazy, if two pro-Putin stunts from the last week are any guide. The first came from Putin's Army, a group of young, female Putin supporters who formed on VKontakte, Russia's version of Facebook. They released a professionally-made video calling on "young, smart, and beautiful" girls to tear off their shirts and back a Putin campaign for the presidency. (After all, how else would you show your support? Elections?) But they may have been one-upped by a similar group called I Really Do Like Putin, who staged a bikini car wash in downtown Moscow. The women gave free car washes for Russian-made cars to show their support for Russia's domestic car industry.
Russia Today presents the footage, followed by an attempt at banter from the anchors that almost upstages the car wash footage:
With elections a year away in Russia, the campaign wing of Putin's establishment are relying on an unorthodox PR strategy to rebrand the party and win more (non-rigged) votes. Posters up now in central Moscow depict President Dmitri Medvedev as an armor-clad superhero, spoofing the new movie Captain America by calling Medvedev "Captain Russia: First Ruler." But it's not clear who's behind the Putin's Army video. Though speculation abounds, Putin has not declared his candidacy for the presidency yet, and Kremlin authorities have strongly denied involvement.
Of course, if women tearing off their shirts doesn't work, there's always Putin's chest. What a stud.
DMITRY ASTAKHOV/AFP/Getty Images
Muammar al-Qaddafi likes to play chess, and it may be that he sees a checkmate nearing. According to a respected Russian newspaper today, Moscow officials say the Libyan leader is "sending out signals that he is prepared to relinquish power in exchange for security guarantees." The logic, as summed up by Reuters, is that Qaddafi sees decreasing supplies of money and fuel, and increasing military pressure from NATO and the rebel army.
Of course, no one really knows what is going on inside the Libyan leader's head; his government spokesman categorically denied the report. Many analysts are skeptical. Dirk Vandewalle, a Libya scholar at Dartmouth College who was recently appointed as an advisor to the United Nations mission for Libya, told Foreign Policy that back channel talks between Qaddafi's government and Russia haven't gone anywhere.
"The bottom line is he doesn't want to go," he said.
Western diplomatic sources told Reuters that it is in Qaddafi's interests to "send out conflicting signals about possible deals, in the hope that it will sow confusion among the rebels and the fragile Western alliance trying to push him out."
But according to David Mack, a scholar at the Middle East Institute and a former U.S. diplomat in Libya when Qaddafi first came to power, that analysis doesn't hold up. Qaddafi, he says, is depending on his supporters thinking they don't have any other way out other than backing him until the end. Making the world think his exit is actually an option harms that narrative.
"It's our strategy to try to convince people around Qaddafi that there are better options," Mack said.
One thing is clear -- as NATO bombs continue to target Qaddafi and his backers, and as the rebel army and Qaddafi's forces battle each other in the east and west of the country, there has been a lot of behind-the-scenes diplomatic maneuvering.
Russia, the United Kingdom, and Turkey are all in back channel talks with his government, according to Vandewalle. The United States is participating in defacto talks through the United Kingdom. And South African President Jacob Zuma has been pushing a diplomatic solution since the fighting started. He's met with Qaddafi several times and yesterday said NATO countries should assist in persuading the Transitional National Council (TNC) "to remove some of the preconditions that are making it hard or impossible to start with the negotiations process" -- such as the insistence on prosecuting Qaddafi.
On Sunday, there were signals that the TNC was softening its position. In an interview with Reuters, opposition leader Mustapha Abdul-Jalil said the TNC had offered Qaddafi the option of resigning but staying in Libya. (The next day he backtracked a bit, saying that it was just a scenario that was discussed internally but that there was no "current or future possibility for Qaddafi to remain in Libya").
Yesterday, the Libyan government said it held talks with the TNC on several occasions in Italy, Norway, and Egypt about finding a peaceful solution (an Italian government spokesman called the reports untrue).
"The one thing that is going on is there's an enormous amount of back channels," said Vandewalle.
Vandewalle is skeptical Qaddafi is really looking for a negotiated exit.
Russian President Dmitry Medvedev says he's troubled by the security lapses that led to yesterday's Moscow airport bombing:
“What occurred shows that there were violations in providing security,” Mr. Medvedev said in comments released by the Kremlin. “Such a quantity of explosive material that was carried in or brought in — that’s not so easy to do. We must hold responsible those who have ties to the company that makes decisions, the management of the airport.”
Russia's investigative committee has piled on, finding that "the terrorist had no difficulties entering the arrival hall where the blast occurred as there was not an adequate control." An anonymous police source told RIA-Novosti that airport security "turned a blind eye to the presence of unauthorized persons."
A full investigation of the events should certainly be carried out, including whether there was anyone working on the inside, helping the bombers. But it doesn't sound to me like there was much out of the ordinary in the airport's security arrangements. (Nor do I detect some sort of latent Russian death-wish in the lax security arrangements.) The arrivals areas at most U.S. airports are unsecured as well. According to the New York Times, there were only "sporadic" metal detector checks at the entrance to the hall, but spot checks don't seem entirely inappropriate for the country's busiest international airport.
If anything, the attacks reflect how difficult it's become to carry out terrorist attacks on planes, as Chechen militants did from the same airport in 2004. As former DHS official Stephen Baker told the Times, “They’d like to be bombing planes and they can’t, so they’re bombing airports,” he said. And even if authorities were able to turn all three of Moscow's major airports into impenetrable fortresses, Russia's terrorist groups have proven perfectly willing to target subways and passenger trains.
Every public space and soft target can't be secured and the root cause of the problem seems to be getting underplayed in both Russian official statements and international media coverage: As long as there's an ongoing low-grade insurgency festering in the North Caucasus, militant groups be able to find soft targets.
OXANA ONIPKO/AFP/Getty Images
RuLeaks, a WikiLeaks type site owned and operated by the Russian Pirate Party, was shut down by a denial of service attack yesterday after posting photos of a lavish mansion alleged to be Prime Minister Vladimir Putin's estate on the Black Sea. The site, and the photos, are now back up.
The existence of the "Putin palace" on the Black Sea was discussed by the Washington Post's David Ignatius in an article last year. According to Russian whistleblower Sergey Kolesnikov, the still under-construction digs cost more than $1 billion, include an amphitheater and three helipads and is being "predominantly paid for with money donated by Russian businessmen." Putin's spokesman denied the report, saying that the building has nothing to do with Putin.
From the photos, the place certainly looks fit for a Romanov, with frescoed ceilings, outdoor maze bushes, marble floors, and four-post beds. Bizarrely, a man who appears to be a construction worker with his face blacked out poses in a number of the shots. (He may want to read up on the fates of previous WikiLeakers.) RuLeaks' description of the photos coyly describes them as "photographs of a palace, which has recently been discussed in the press".
RuLeaks, which was founded on Jan. 14, operates on servers outside the country. The Pirate Party says it is currently looking into the source of the DDoS attack.
More lavish images from the (possibly) "Putin Palace" below the jump:
The president of LUKoil Overseas, Andrei Kuzyayev, met Ghana's energy minister, Joe Oteng Adjei, for discussions about the expansion of the company in Ghana, including the development of new projects, according to the latest corporate newsletter, Neftyanie Vedomosti. After leaving Ghana, Kuzyayev held talks in the capital of Sierra Leone, Freetown, and LUKoil Overseas senior vice president Dmitry Timoshenko visited Liberia's capital of Monrovia.
Countries like Sierra Leone and Liberia, “which have just come through terrible civil wars … are today, with the interest of foreign investors, quickly resurrecting their shattered economies,” the company's publication said.[…]
The West African continental shelf is an interesting prospect for many international companies, said Valery Nesterov, an oil analyst at Troika Dialog. “I think almost all Russian companies will be looking at the West African shelf — including TNK-BP,” he added.and
LUKoil's potential resources in the area currently consist of up to 35 million barrels. The company said in September that it might have more petroleum in West Africa than in West Siberia.
Between the increasing international competition for the region's oil resources, burgeoning nuclear programs, the promise of greater U.S. engagement, the fallout from the Ivory Coast's political crisis, elections in Nigeria, the beginning of Liberia's election cycle, and concerns over drug trafficking and terrorism bubbling just below the surface, this should be an extremely interesting and consequential year for West Africa. Thankfully, for the United States at least, Iran's efforts at engagement in the region appear to have badly faltered in 2009.
Mikhail Khordokovsky, the ex-tycoon who was convicted in a Moscow courtroom Monday on embezzlement charges -- a development that surprised approximately zero observers -- faces a grim short-term future, judging from a cable released this week that describes the Russian prison system in painful detail.
The cable, dated Feb. 27, 2008, and signed by then-ambassador William J. Burns, tells of a broken, inhumane system that "combines the country's emblematic features -- vast distances, harsh climate, and an uncaring bureaucracy -- and fuses them into a massive instrument of punishment." A Dostoevsky novel come to life.
Khordokovsky has yet to be sentenced, but observers expect he could be on the hook for as many as 15 more years in jail. Since he was first arrested in 2003, he has spent much of his time in Krasnokamensk, a Siberian prison camp more than 3,000 miles from Moscow. There, he was exposed to freezing temperatures, awful food, and solitary confinement -- conditions he called "Gulag Lite." Later, during his two-year trial, he was crammed into "a 35-square-foot cell with several other men and no fresh air or sun save for a few shafts of light through a tiny ventilation window," according to an account earlier this year in FP.
Judging by Burns's cable, Khordokovsky's experience sounds rather typical. But Russian prisons aren't simply brutal, inhospitable places. They also contain some unique features. For instance, enforcers:
According to Lev Ponomarev, who recently established the NGO "For Prisoners' Rights," the authorities use a two-tier system of administration. The prison officials and the guards protect the perimeter of the facilities and provide the upper layer of security, but then they elevate select prisoners to act as internal enforcers among the other prisoners. These elite prisoners receive privileges and protections in return for enforcing a brutal form of order within the prisons. Ponomarev called this a "low-risk ghetto system" for the guards. "If one of their enforcers gets killed by another, they can just promote a new one. Maybe even the one that killed the last boss." [...]
This system of using prisoners to enforce discipline and order was formally established by the Ministry of Justice in 2005. According to William Smirnov, a member of the President's Council on Human Rights, the MOJ formalized a system that had long existed. Smirnov defended the system, telling us that "It was not a bad idea, but it was poorly implemented."
Another unique feature? Toddlers:
At the women's prison in Mozhaisk (Moscow Oblast) the Embassy and a visiting DOJ delegation were given a tour of the prison housing facilities and clothing factory, and then treated to a bizarre fashion and talent show by the inmates. Eleven of the 43 women's prisons in the Russian Federation allow inmates to have children under age three to live on the prison grounds, and women in the other prisons who become pregnant are transferred to prisons that allow children. Only two, Mozhaisk and Mordovia, allow mothers to live and sleep in the same rooms with their young children. At age three, the children are moved to family members on the outside or to orphanages. The facilities at Mozhaisk were clean, well kept, and the factory where prisoners produced uniforms for the military, police, and other government workers appeared to be safe, well lit, and well run.
Burns, or whoever wrote the cable, holds out no hope for change:
A system as vast and entrenched as the Russian prison system will be difficult if not impossible to reform. The nature of the system, which has not substantively varied as it has evolved from tsarist prisons to the gulag to today's system, nurtures the spread of disease, abuse, and corruption. Observers agree that the combination of distance, isolation, corruption, and general indifference to the plight of convicts combine to create a system that is brutal and will resist attempts to reveal its inner workings, or to change it.
ALEXANDER NEMENOV/AFP/Getty Images
Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin conducted his annual telethon today, taking call-in questions for more than four and a half hours.
Putin managed to make a bit of news during the program, offering praise to Belarus' authoritarian President Alexander Lukashenko ahead of this weekend's election. The relationship between the former allies had grown sour over the last couple of years due to a dispute over energy pricing as well Lukashenko's refusal to recognize the breakaway republics of South Ossetia and Abkhazia and his tentative overtures to Europe. Russian state television had begun airing documentaries about state corruption and human rights abuses in Belarus and President Medvedev even played bad cop for once, recording a video message, accusing Lukashenko of "hysterical" anti-Russian rhetoric.
But Lukashenko traveled to Moscow last week for energy talks and the hatchet has apparently been buried for now:
"Whatever our relations with the Belarussian leadership -- and there have been sparks from time to time -- (the) ... Belarussian leadership has taken a clear course towards integration with Russia," Putin said.
Putin also promised that Russia could supply 20 to 21 million tons of oil to Belarus next year. While the result of the election is hardly in doubt, a more positive relationship with Russia is certainly in the interest of Lukashenko, who has faced widespread protests after previous polls.
Asked whether the imprisonment of Mikhail B. Khodorkovsky, the former oil baron, was justified, Mr. Putin gave a caustic answer, quoting a song by the beloved singer Vladimir Vysotsky.
Putin also suggested that Ukraine join a post-Soviet trade bloc along with Kazakhstan and Belarus, predicted a World Cup-related economic boost, and was once again coy about the fate of the spy who turned in the 10 Russian sleeper agents in the United States:
[Putin said] Russia has abandoned the Soviet-era practice of killing turncoats.
"Russia's special services don't do that," he said during a televised call-in show. "As for the traitors, they will croak all by themselves. Whatever equivalent of 30 pieces of silver they get, it will get stuck in their throats."
The best Putin-being-Putin moment may have been a response to a question about who runs the country when both he and Medvedev are asleep:
"We take turns sleeping," he said.
NATALIA KOLESNIKOVA/AFP/Getty Images
This is a new one:
Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) called Democrats' push to force through an arms control treaty and an omnibus spending bill right before Christmas "sacrilegious," and warned he'd draw the process out to wage his objections.
"You can't jam a major arms control treaty right before Christmas," he told POLITICO. "What's going on here is just wrong. This is the most sacred holiday for Christians. They did the same thing last year - they kept everybody here until (Christmas Eve) to force something down everybody's throat. I think Americans are sick of this."
Not quite sure by what definition Dec. 15 qualifies as " right before Christmas." As Steve Benen points out, "Americans nationwide are working this week and next, as are U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan."
And if DeMint is really so concerned about getting his holiday shopping done, he might want to reconsider taking up the rest of today by having the entire treaty -- which was signed in April -- read aloud.
Win McNamee/Getty Images
According to the magazine "Russky Reporter," for example, the famous walkout by Western diplomats during Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad's speech to the United Nations in September 2009 was not spontaneous and had in fact been planned by Washington.
The magazine, citing WikiLeaks documents, claimed in a December 2 article that U.S. officials gave detailed instructions to EU representatives on when to leave the room during Ahmadinejad's speech. The claim, if substantiated, could be deeply embarrassing to the United States.
But unlike other media reporting on the WikiLeaks revelations, "Russky Reporter" provided no documents to back up its allegations. An extensive search of the WikiLeaks database fails to yield relevant U.S. cables, causing some analysts to suggest the magazine might be exploiting WikiLeaks to propagate false information.
It's a good catch, but I have to say that if I were a Russian propagandist, I might aim a little higher. Why not allege that the U.S. plotted the Orange Revolution? Or that Russian opposition leaders are on the U.S. payroll? Or that the proposed missile defense shield in Eastern Europe is indeed targeted at Russia not Iran? The Ahmadinejad walkout was a significant gesture but not exactly a historic turning point. Perhaps they were trying to avoid the Pakistani mistake of making the deception too obvious.
DON EMMERT/AFP/Getty Images
Looks like even Bono couldn't stop it. Despite a wave of protest environmental and civil society groups throughout the summer, it appears that the Kremlin is going ahead with a controversial plan to build a highway through the Khimki forest, north of Moscow:
The Moscow-St. Petersburg highway has become a political issue for the Kremlin after a wave of opposition protests last summer. In August, President Dmitry Medvedev suspended it in a decision welcomed by environmentalists.
Vedomosti quoted several unidentified Kremlin sources, including a senior official, as saying construction would go ahead after all. The Kremlin declined to comment Thursday.
Opponents to the project argue the highway could easily be re-routed without damaging pristine woodland. The project has become a rallying point for environmentalists, rights groups and Kremlin critics.
FP contributor Julia Ioffe adds some context:
Why did this happen? Well, money, for one thing. Vinci, the French company building the road, apparently used the French government to lean on the Kremlin, which was already probably quite willing to listen: if there was deemed to be a breach of contract between SKZZ (Vinci’s vehicle) and the Russian company N-Trans, N-Trans could be liable for as much as 3.5 billion rubles ($113 million). And let’s not forget who N-Trans invited to participate in the project to make sure it gets built: longtime Putin buddy Arkady Rotenberg.
Something tells me that, as much as the Kremlin totally, absolutely, hilariously wants to appease– I mean, pretend– I mean, develop civil society, that Rotenberg’s — and Putin’s — skajillions matter more.
Three journalists who have reported critically on the project, including Kommersant's Oleg Kashin, who have reported crticially on the project have been attacked over the last two years.
Last week, I had the chance to speak with three of the lawyers representing the imprisoned Russian oil tycoon-turned-dissident Mikhail Khodorkovsky, who were visiting Washington for meetings with the administration officials and NGOs. The verdict in Khodorkovsky's latest embezzlement trial -- the proceedings of which have bordered on farcical at times -- is expected on Dec. 15.
I asked Khodorkovsky's lead trial lawyer Vadim Klyuvgant if he was surprised at the harsh assessments of the Russian political landscape contained in the WikiLeaks cables from Moscow:
We were pleased to read in WikiLeaks that everything we've been saying over the years about what's really going on in Russia are reflected in this diplomatic correspondence. Internally, we see there was always an understanding of what's really happening. But of course publicy, to put it mildly, they don't say everything they say internally.
Attorney Maria Logan thought that the contrast between the stark assessments in the cables and the friendly public relationship between the Obama administration and the Kremlin would be difficult to maintain in the post-WikiLeaks world:
The American administration has created a division between the real Russia, which is being reflected in the correspondence that we now see, and this other Russia that they wanted to show the American public when they pursued the reset strategy. It will be very difficult now for the us to explain why they've been doing the reset when Russia's face is not as pretty as it looked. [...]
The administration, internally, was always very helpful from us. We always received very generous time from the State department and the embassy, very generous time considering where they put the issue of Khodorkovsky publicy on the agenda. There was always a difference and I think they're put in a difficult position. It will be interesting to watch.
One of the cables, from December of last year, specifically discusses Khodorkovsky's trial, taking note of the Russia public's apathy about the situation.
There is a widespread understanding that Khodorkovskiy violated the tacit rules of the game: if you keep out of politics, you can line your pockets as much as you desire. Most Russians believe the Khodorkovskiy trial is politically motivated; they simply do not care that it is. Human rights activists in general have an uphill battle in overcoming public apathy and cynicism, but nowhere more so than in the Khodorkovskiy case.
I asked Klyuvgant whether he thinks the Russian public is tuning out the trial:
Our civil society is still very weak. But the civil society as it exists today in Russia is listening to him and understand what he's saying. The level of support for Khodorkovsky in Russia has been increasing. The level of sympathy for Khodorkovsky, as opposed to support, has been increasing even more. Of course it's still below what we would like to to be and what we think he deserves, but that's general disatisfcation with the political environment in Russia. There is apathy and cynicism among the general public. But having said that, if you're talking about the level of support for Khodorkovsky, it's still higher than the level of support for the political opposition as a whole.
Given the widespread attention received by Khodorkovsky's closing statement in the trial, I asked if Khodorkovsky considered himself an opposition leader:
He's not comfortable being put in a position at the center of resistance so to speak. He's being forced into becoming what seems to a lot of people to be a revolutionary, but that's not his nature. If you look at the reforms declared by President Medvedev, the attempt to modernize the country, Khodorkovsky would be essential to that reform. He has so much to offer in that area. There are not so many people with so much potential and it's a crime to keep a person with such potential to build and do something in isolation and unable to contribute.
But however Khodorkovsky sees himself, his trial has certainly become much bigger than one oligarch's struggle against the government. As longtime Khodorkovsky attorney Anton Drel put it:
In 2003, when Khodorkovsky was arrested, few people supported him. He was just an oligarch. Now he is a litmus test: for President Medvedev as well as for the reset button policy. We'll see if this is an issue for the young people in Russia and an issue for America.
The Khodorkovsky case is not an internal issue of Russia. It is a foreign policy issue, a geopolitics issue.
DMITRY KOSTYUKOV/AFP/Getty Images
FIFA today announced that Russia would host the 2018 World Cup and … Qatar … would host the 2022 Cup. Obviously this is shocking news across the sporting and football worlds.
So why Russia and Qatar?
Russia, actually, makes a certain amount of sense. In the end, it seemed like the choice had come down to Russia and England. (The reports that England finished fourth out of fourth for 2018 bidding are stunning, and if true, really demonstrate an … interesting mindset on the part of the FIFA commissioners.) Russia is still largely untapped by football. The Russian Premier League is not yet at the level of La Liga, Serie A, or the English Premier League, but it certainly qualifies as a middle tier European football division.
Moreover, there's a sense that football is growing in popularity in the country, and there is money to be made in the market. Logistically, brand new stadiums, and enough viable locations for them, are something FIFA salivates over in the bidding process. Russia can provide that. Despite being heartbreaking for England (and the joint bids of Spain/Portugal and the Netherlands/Belgium), Russia has the potential to host a strong Cup.
The 2022 decision is more mystifying, but there are a few legitimate enticements Qatar offered. The idea of hosting the Cup in the Arab world is a plus, and by all accounts Qatar's bid presentation was astonishing -- promising to build 9 completely new stadiums, renovating three others, then donating them to third world countries after the tournament, and guaranteeing a Green Cup. But there's a reason why FIFA labeled Qatar's bid "high risk."
(Puzzling, England was recognized to have the best presentation, but that didn't factor into the 2018 decision. The corruption questions are already swirling -- and have been for some months. The New York Times' Jére Longman wrote up a good overview on Nov. 30. )
Qatar presents two major logistical problems that FIFA faces. Qatar is alleging their new stadiums -- open-air, a FIFA requirement -- will be equipped with advanced air conditioned technology, allowing for adequate playing conditions. But where will the players train? 12 stadiums isn't hardly enough. Unless the plan is to build a giant air-conditioned dome above the country, the heat factor -- consistently over 100 degrees farenheit in summer -- is a massive challenge.
Additionally, Qatar's lack of viable summer activities outside the games -- compared to its competitors -- is sigificant, and will deter a large amount of fans from making the trip. That is, after all, the ultimate purpose of the tournament -- promoting diversity and celebrating the fact that, for at least two months, we can put aside our differences and celebrate an event with universal interest. That's not possible with empty stadiums.
As a devoted United States soccer fan, greatly interested in the domestic (I actually watched the MLS playoffs in the last two seasons, and can say the 2009 championship game was arguably the most epic sporting event I've seen) and international game, this is a crushing blow to take. I am old enough to remember the passion of 1994, and young enough to come of age in an era where soccer took off in the United States. While there's no risk that my interest in soccer will wane, there is a chance that many casual followers will, if not tune out, be less engaged with the sport. It's impossible for me to separate that fact from my analysis -- I, like all other U.S. soccer fans today, feel gutted.
It had long been expected that the 2022 tournament was the United States' to lose, and for good reason: the 1994 World Cup was the most successful in the history of the competition (by far), soccer is growing leaps and bounds in the country and its domestic league has just finished its 15th year and is expanding. The country with the most tickets bought for the 2010 World Cup (besides host-country South Africa) was the United States, again by some margin. No infrastructure construction is required (and a number of new stadiums will be built anyway in the next 12 years), there are a huge amount of viable locations to host games, and, despite its struggles, the United States national team has proved itself a legitimate player in international tournaments. (Lest we forget that the United States, in the 2009 Confederation's Cup in South Africa, beat future World Cup winners Spain 2-0, ending their 35 game unbeaten streak?) Furthermore, the United States has qualified for the last six World Cups, a feat that only powerhouses Argentina, Brazil, Germany, Italy, and Spain can match.
Qatar is 113th in FIFA's world football rankings. There's no history nor tradition of the beautiful game in the country. It has never qualified for a World Cup, finished 8th in the Asian Football Confederation's final qualifying round for 2010 -- and will receive an automatic bid for 2022. It has very little infrastructure in place, and that which will be built will be constructed by migrant laborers with very few rights. As recently as 2008, Qatar was in the lowest country tier in the State Department's Trafficking in Persons Report.
FIFA also made another, more practical, mistake -- the United States is a huge market, the growth potential of the sport is enormous in the country, and there's, ultimately, a massive amount of money to be made. The Arab world already loves football -- there are few regional viewers to gain.
Finally, following the 2010 and 2014 (South Africa, Brazil) Cups with two more question marks is a gamble. Now, China, rumored to have interest in hosting the 2026 Cup, will likely not have the chance to do so until 2036 (the same confederation can not host two Cups in a row). And if there are any slipups in the run-up to either 2018 or 2022, you can bet that Brits and Americans will be screaming, "I told you so."
On the bright side, I'd bet everything I have on the United States getting the 2026 or 2030 World Cup.
PHILIPPE DESMAZES/AFP/Getty Images
Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin is known for loving both cute things and adrenaline, so it's no surprise that he has taken to movie star Leonardo DiCaprio like a puppy to a new chew-toy. DiCaprio landed in St. Petersburg earlier this week to attend a tiger-conservation conference, but his journey to Russia was rife with excitement. His first Russia-bound plane was forced to make an emergency landing in New York after an engine failure. His second plane had to stop in Finland for unscheduled refueling because of strong headwinds.
According to the Telegraph, Putin spotted DiCaprio in the audience and deviated from his set speech to praise DiCaprio as a "real man" noting that "a person with less stable nerves could have decided against coming, could have read it as a sign - that it was not worth going."
DiCaprio apparently was also feeling the love, telling Putin about his Russian heritage. (A Russian film producer, noting Leo's uncanny resemblence to Vladimir Lenin, is reportedly looking to cast the Inception star as a re-animated version of the Soviet revolutionary in an upcoming sci-fi film.)
With all this love in the air, the tigers were not left out. According to the World Wildlife Fund, the International Tiger Conservation Forum ended with the approval of the Global Tiger Recovery Program, which aims to double the number of tigers in the wild. DiCaprio personally donated $1 million for tiger conservation (which should also make Malia
Of course, Putin's feelings about tigers are already well-known.
Russia is one of 13 countries where tigers still exist in the wild, along with Bangladesh, Bhutan, Burma, Cambodia, China, India, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Nepal, Thailand, and Vietnam.
Washington Post intelligence correspondent Jeff Stein provides some much needed follow-up on yesterday's strange piece in Kommersant promising revenge against the SVR colonel who betrayed the American "illegals." Two former spies, one American and one Russia, remember Colonel Aleksandr Vasilyevich Shcherbakov, thought to be the traitorous spymaster identified in the story. But the story still seems fishy:
Kommersant, said Dmitry Sidirov, the paper’s former Washington bureau chief, "is very close to the Kremlin." Its story, he speculated, was "an intentional leak," most likely a thinly-veiled attack on Mikhail Fradkov, head of the SVR, as the foreign intelligence service is known, since 2007, who had recently been "very much under attack" by rivals.
"The whole point of the story was to make the SVR a joke," Sidirov said.
An unnamed Russian official has told Russia's generally reputable Kommersant newspaper that an assassin has been dispatched to dispense some Soviet-style justice against a former SVR colonel identified only as Shcherbakov, who allegedly controlled the ring of sleeper agents arrested in the United States last June and fled Russia just days before they were arrested:
"You can have no doubt -- a Mercader has already been sent after him."
Ramón Mercader was the KGB-hired Spanish communist who was sent to kill Leon Trotsky with an ice pick in Mexico in 1940. [...]
"The fate of such a person is unenviable. All his life he will drag this with him, living every day in fear of retribution."
So for blowing Russia's inside source on the Montclair Parent-Teacher Association, this guy gets elevated to the level of Leon Trotsky?
It's true that the arrest of "the illegals" can be seen as a sign of the return to KGB-era espionage tactics after a period during which the SVR tried unsuccessfully to distance itself from its past. And the involvement of Russian intelligence has been suspected in a number of other assassinations, notably former KGB agent Alexander Litvinenko, who was killed by polonium poisoning in London in 2006.
But telegraphing an assassination plan in advance is going to make plausible deniability a bit tough if something happens to Shcherbakov in the near future. Prime Minister Vladimir Putin was a bit subtler back in July, saying, "The special services live under their own laws, and everyone knows what these laws are" and "Traitors always end badly. As a rule, they end up in the gutter as drunks or drug addicts."
Preliminary analysis shows that there is no threat posed to Russia by Julian Assange's resource. You have to understand that if there is the desire and the right team, it's possible to shut it down forever," an expert from the FSB’s Center for Information Security was quoted by Life News as saying on Tuesday.
Links between hacker cells and the FSB made in the past lend credence to this thinly veiled secret services threat. In his recent book on Russia’s secret services, investigative journalist Andrei Soldatov details how the Russian FSB "maintain a sophisticated alliance with unofficial hackers, such as those who carry out cyber attacks on the Web sites of enemies of the state," drawing attention to hacker forums such as Informacia.ru.
Another interesting wrinkle of this story is Assange's claim that he's receiving help in his Russia investigations from "the Americans." Inferring right off the bat that he's getting help from U.S. intelligence -- I'm not saying he is but that's certainly the inference that will be drawn in Russia -- would seem to undercut the validity of his documents right off the bat. If Assange has claimed that "the Chinese" helped him in assembling the Iraq war logs it would have changed the story quite a bit.
Vladimir Putin's trip to Kiev this week to sign a series of trade deals with an increasingly Russia-friendly Ukrainian government should have been a feel-good moment for the Russian prime minister, but all anyone wants to talk about is the mysterious bruise on the side of his face:
Putin's aides denied anything was wrong, but the leader's appearance caused intense speculation in local media and blogs. Ukrainian television channel TSN said the Kremlin chief had "noticeable swelling" on his face and was "covered in make-up."
Andrei Kolesnikov, a well-known correspondent with Russia's Kommersant newspaper, confirmed the president's unusual aspect. "Could it really be the result of some tough sparring?" he asked, saying the bruise was "thoroughly retouched but nonetheless noticeable to everyone without exception".
The Kremlin is not-very-convincingly blaming jet lag and light falling on his face in an "unfortunate manner." The Ukrainian media is reporting that the normally talkative Putin was "sad and silent" during a meeting with his Ukrainian counterparts and left early, canceling a planned dinner. According to the BBC, the bruise seems to have appeared between Tuesday and Wednesday.
Not waiting before launching into speculation, Ukrainian papers suggest Putin either "had plastic surgery, underwent a complicated dental procedure that left his face puffy or had an unfortunate judo fight." As the Guardian notes, Putin's habit of cuddling with dangerous wildlife can also put one at risk of injury. In any event, Vladimir Vladimirovich himself doesn't seem likely to comment.
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