President Barack Obama
(Susan Walsh/AP)
March 17, 2014

US Announces Sanctions Against Russian Officials

President Barack Obama is imposing sanctions against Russian officials after Crimea's vote to secede from Ukraine.

Obama's executive order issued Monday names seven Russian government officials. The United States also says it identifies and targets the assets of other individuals who aren't government officials but are supporting them.

The Treasury Department also is imposing sanctions on four Ukrainians, including former President Viktor Yanukovych and two Crimea-based separatist leaders.

The U.S. announcement came shortly after the European Union announced travel bans and asset freezes on 21 people.

The sanctions were expected after residents in Crimea voted overwhelmingly Sunday in favor of the split.

People in Simferopol, Ukraine, attend a pro-Russian rally in Lenin Square after a day of voting on whether to unite with Russia. Exit polls show strong approval for the move, according to Russian state-run media.
(Spencer Platt/Getty Images)
March 16, 2014

Crimea: Exit Polls Support Split From Ukraine To Join Russia

Russian news services are claiming overwhelming support in Crimea for the region's plan to secede from Ukraine and unite with Russia, citing exit polls from Sunday's referendum.

Russia's state news agency reports that 93 percent of voters said they were in favor of joining Russia.

Residents of Crimea voted on the contentious question in a referendum that also offered the option of remaining part of Ukraine, with increased autonomy.

Polls closed Sunday evening after a day of reportedly high turnout. Preliminary results aren't expected to be announced until late Sunday or Monday. Russian lawmakers and other officials are being quoted saying that they will work to absorb Crimea very quickly, perhaps by the end of March.

Pro-Ukrainian activists inside Crimea had urged a boycott of the vote, NPR's Gregory Warner reports, saying it was called prematurely and without debate. And as Gregory notes in a post for our Parallels blog, some of those who boycotted did so by staying home and making dumplings.

The referendum had widely been expected to pass; Crimea's parliament has already voted to seek annexation by Russia. Government officials in Ukraine, the U.S. and elsewhere say they consider the referendum illegitimate.

Update at 3 p.m. ET: The Polls Are Closed; 93 Percent Approval Cited

"A total of 93 percent of participants in the referendum in Crimea have voted for the accession to Russia," reports Russia's state-run Itar-Tass news agency, "according to an exit poll conducted by the Crimean Institute for Political and Sociological Studies."

The exit poll used data from 200 polling stations, the agency says.

Moments after Crimea's polls closed, the White House issued a statement rejecting today's vote, saying that it runs contrary to Ukraine's constitution.

"Russia's actions are dangerous and destabilizing," the statement said.

Update at 10 a.m. ET: Putin Defends Referendum

Russian President Vladimir Putin defended Sunday's vote, with state-run Itar-Tass news agency reporting that he called the referendum "in compliance with the norms of international law, in particular with Article 1 of the UN Charter that stipulates the principle of equality and self-determination of peoples."

Itar-Tass cites the Kremlin press service in its report. Putin's comments reportedly came during a phone call with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, as the two leaders discussed the crisis in Ukraine.

Update at 9:35 a.m. ET: Ukraine And Russia Reportedly In 'Truce'

With tensions escalating over the future of Crimea, Ukraine's acting defense minister says his country has reached a truce with Russia that will hold in Crimea until Friday.

Reuters quotes Ihor Tenyukh speaking to reporters at a cabinet meeting in Kiev Sunday:

"An agreement has been reached with [Russia's] Black Sea Fleet and the Russian Defense Ministry on a truce in Crimea until March 21.

"No measures will be taken against our military facilities in Crimea during that time. Our military sites are therefore proceeding with a replenishment of reserves."

Freelance journalist Paul Brennan, who is in Kiev, says that while the minister discussed the truce before the Cabinet met, he "strangely didn't mention it in his address to full Cabinet."

Speculation over the reported truce includes the idea that it might imply a promise to allow Ukrainians to withdraw from pro-Russian areas.

Election staff begin to count votes at a polling station in Bachchisaray, in Crimea, Ukraine, Sunday. Crimeans voted to decide whether the peninsula will break away from mainland Ukraine. The referendum has been dismissed as illegal by the West. (Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)

Update at 8:30 a.m. ET: High Turnout At The Polls

More than 43 percent of Crimea's residents have voted, says Mikhail Malyshev, who heads Crimea's Supreme Council's commission, which organized the referendum.

That's according to a report from Sevastopol by NPR's Jessica Golloher.

"Malyshev says some 64 percent of the largest city in Crimea, Kerch, have voted and around 40 percent of Yaltans have cast their ballots," Jessica says. "International vote monitor Enrique Ravello of Spain also says turnout is high."

Update at 3:50 a.m. ET: Voter Enthusiasm

Voters lined up before polls opened and more than 70 people surged in during the first 15 minutes in the Crimean port city of Sevastopol, where Russia maintains its Black Sea fleet, according to the Associated Press.

"Today is a holiday," said one voter, 66-year-old Vera Sverkunova. Asked how she voted, she broke into a patriotic war song: "I want to go home to Russia, it's been so long since I've seen my mama," the AP said.

Our original post continues:

The Crimean Peninsula is predominantly ethnic Russian, and residents say they fear being oppressed by the interim Ukrainian government that took over when President Viktor Yanukovych was ousted in February. Yanukovych fled to Russia after months of protest and bloodshed.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has said he will respect the voters' decision. The U.S. and EU have warned that annexation would prompt more economic sanctions against Russia.

On Saturday, Russia vetoed a UN resolution condemning today's vote, the only Security Council member to vote against the measure. China, also a member of the Security Council and often an ally of Russia, abstained from the vote, in what the AP calls "a sign of Moscow's isolation on the issue."

Russian troops have taken control of government buildings and military bases in Crimea since Yanukovych fled. On Saturday, Russian troops made what was apparently their first foray outside Crimea, crossing the border to take over a natural gas plant that serves the region.

Armed men, believed to be Russian troops, walk outside a Ukrainian military base in Perevalnoye, near the Crimean city of Simferopol, on Friday.
(Vasily Fedosenko /Reuters/Landov)
March 14, 2014

U.S., Russia Talk As Crisis In Ukraine Nears New Flash Point

While Crimeans prepare to vote Sunday on whether to join the Russian Federation, Secretary of State John Kerry is in London for talks with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.

As NPR's Ari Shapiro tells our Newscast Desk, Kerry is looking for a way to de-escalate the crisis in Ukraine.

The BBC adds that Kerry is expected to warn Lavrov "that the disputed referendum being held in Crimea in two days and Russia's military intervention there could trigger concerted U.S. and EU sanctions."

Indeed, as NPR's Michele Kelemen reported on Thursday, Kerry says that if Russia doesn't help resolve the crisis, "there will be a very serious series of steps Monday in Europe" and the U.S.

Those steps could include economic sanctions and additional travel restrictions on any officials believed to have been responsible for Russian intervention in Ukraine.

On Morning Edition, NPR's Gregory Warner reported from Crimea about the scene there in advance of Sunday's vote. He reports having seen dozens of armored personnel carriers, fuel supply trucks and military satellite systems near the region's border with the rest of Ukraine.

Gregory notes that Crimeans will be asked to vote on two questions Sunday: whether to join the Russian Federation; or whether to stay part of Ukraine but revert to an earlier constitution that gave them even more autonomy and the chance for dual Ukrainian-Russian citizenship.

Also on Morning Edition, NPR's Peter Kenyon reported about the concerns that Crimea's Tatars have over the pro-Russian sentiment in the region.

Need a refresher on what this crisis is all about?

As we've previously said, Crimea has been the focus of attention as the ripple effects of the protests that led to last month's ouster of Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych have spread.

Summing up the history and importance of Crimea to Russia and Ukraine isn't possible in just a few sentences, of course. The Parallels blog, though, has published several posts that contain considerable context:

Crimea: 3 Things To Know About Ukraine's Latest Hot Spot

Crimea: A Gift To Ukraine Becomes A Political Flash Point

Why Ukraine Is Such A Big Deal For Russia

We've recapped what set off months of protest in Kiev and ultimately led to Yanukovych's dismissal by his nation's parliament last month this way:

"The protests were sparked in part by the president's rejection of a pending trade treaty with the European Union and his embrace of more aid from Russia. Protesters were also drawn into the streets to demonstrate against government corruption."

It was after Yanukovych left Kiev and headed for the Russian border that troops moved to take control of strategic locations in Crimea.

Russian President Vladimir Putin during his news conference Tuesday, March 4, 2014.
(Alexei Nikolsky/AP)
March 04, 2014

Putin Says Those Aren't Russian Forces In Crimea

Russian soldiers have not occupied government buildings and surrounded Ukrainian military bases on the Crimean Peninsula, Russian President Vladimir Putin insisted Tuesday during a news conference near Moscow at which he gave an account of recent events that contradicts reports from the ground.

Instead, he told reporters that the heavily armed men are "local self-defense forces."

What's more, anything Russia has done, Putin said without offering specifics, has been part of a "humanitarian mission" to protect ethnic Russians in Crimea.

But even as he said no Russian troops have been involved in the latest events in Crimea, Putin drew comparisons that would seem to indicate they had been. "Our actions are often described by the West as not legitimate, but look at U.S. operations in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya," he said, according to a BBC translation of his comments. "Our actions are legitimate from the point of view of international law, because Ukraine's legitimate president asked us for help. ... Defending these people is in our interests. ... We do not want to 'enslave' anyone."

Putin made the claims about a lack of involvement by Russian forces even though Russian military helicopters have been seen in the skies over Crimea, Russian trucks have been seen moving the armed men to key locations, and the soldiers in unmarked uniforms speak Russian and in some cases have told reporters and local residents that they are members of the Russian military.

The Guardian, BBC News and Reuters live-blogged as Putin spoke. Among the highlights:

— Is Putin concerned about a war breaking out? "No, because we will not go to war with the Ukrainian people." (The Guardian)

— Does he think ousted Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych, who fled to Russia last week, has a political future? No, "and I have told this to him. ... He would have been killed in Ukraine had we not helped him." (BBC News)

— Sanctions against Russia would make matters worse. "All threats against Russia are counterproductive and harmful," Putin said, while adding that Russia is ready to host the G-8 summit in June — but if Western leaders do not want to come, "they don't need to." (Reuters)

— Russia is not going to try to annex Crimea, Putin said. (BBC News)

The Russian leader's news conference followed word from Moscow that "tens of thousands of Russian troops participating in military exercises near Ukraine's border" are returning to their bases.

That's being taken "generally as a good sign," NPR's Peter Kenyon, who is in Crimea, said on Morning Edition.

There was also no "military storm" — a rumored attack by Russian forces — Tuesday morning.

But the rumors about a possible Russian attack had been debunked earlier. As for the order for troops taking part in exercises on the Russian side of the border with Ukraine to return to their bases, New York Times correspondent Steven Lee Myers pointed out on Morning Edition that those exercises had already been scheduled to end today.

Meanwhile, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry is in Kiev today for talks with officials from the interim government that replaced the Yanukovych regime. He arrives, the White House says in a statement released early Tuesday, with the news that the Obama administration "is working with Congress and the government of Ukraine to provide $1 billion in loan guarantees aimed at helping insulate vulnerable Ukrainians from the effects of reduced energy subsidies."

Although the situation in Crimea has been tense since the armed men showed up Friday to surround military bases and take over some strategic locations, there has been no serious violence. Ukrainian forces have stayed in their barracks. The only confrontation reported so far came Tuesday, when some of the armed men fired warning shots in the air after Ukrainian military personnel — who weren't armed — tried to enter an airfield that has been taken over.

We've previously summed up what sparked months of protest in Kiev and ultimately led to Yanukovych's dismissal last month:

"The protests were sparked in part by the president's rejection of a pending trade treaty with the European Union and his embrace of more aid from Russia. Protesters were also drawn into the streets to demonstrate against government corruption."

Armed men outside Ukrainan military unit
(Maxim Shipenkov/EPA/LANDOV)
March 03, 2014

Russia Denies Issuing Ultimatum Or Warning Ukraine Of 'Storm'

Any claims that the Russian military has warned Ukraine to surrender in Crimea or face an assault on Tuesday are "total nonsense," a Russian Defense Ministry official says, according to The Voice of Russia.

The unidentified official turned the accusation back at Ukraine, saying that "we are used to daily accusations about using force against our Ukrainian colleagues. ... Efforts to make us clash won't work."

As we said earlier, accounts often vary in situations such as this when news is breaking. We'll keep an eye out for changes in the story.

Our original post — Reports: Russia Issues Ultimatum, Warns Ukraine Of 'Storm':

Russia has reportedly given Ukraine an ultimatum — surrender Crimea by early Tuesday morning or face a full-on military assault across the strategically important peninsula.

The exact wording of the warning varies by news outlet, most likely because of differences in translations:

Russia has reportedly given Ukraine an ultimatum — surrender Crimea by early Tuesday morning or face a full-on military assault across the strategically important peninsula.

The exact wording of the warning varies by news outlet, most likely because of differences in translations:

— "Russia Delivers 'Assault Storm' Deadline." (Sky News)

— "Russia has issued an ultimatum to Ukrainian forces in the Crimea to clear out by 5 a.m. Tuesday or face a 'military storm.'  (CNN)

— "Surrender or Face 'Storm,' Russia Reportedly Tells Ukraine." (NBC News)

The headlines stem from a report from the InterFax news agency, part of which is here. InterFax, in turn, says it's citing Ukrainian defense ministry sources.

As always in situations such as this when news is breaking and accounts may vary, we'll keep an eye out for changes in the story.

Meanwhile, "Russia's foreign minister said Monday that the decision to dispatch troops to Ukraine is not an act of aggression, but a measure aimed at protecting human rights and Russian citizens," RIA Novisti reports.

Diplomats from the U.S., U.K. and other nations say, however, that Russia has trampled on the sovereign rights of another nation by sending its forces into Crimea after Ukraine's pro-Russian president was removed from office by his nation's parliament.

Up to now, there have been no reports of shots fired or confrontations involving troops as Russian forces have moved to surround Ukrainian military bases and occupy other strategic places in Crimea.

Earlier, we posted about how:

"With Russian forces now effectively in control on the Crimean Peninsula, there's an ominous question on the minds of people around the world:

"Will President Vladimir Putin go further — sending his troops into other parts of Ukraine?"

Meanwhile, President Barack Obama says Russia is "on the wrong side of history'' in Ukraine and its actions violate international law.
Obama told reporters in the Oval Office on Monday that the United States is considering economic and diplomatic options that will isolate Russia. The president called on Congress to work on an aid package to Ukraine and make it the "first order of business.''
Obama said continued military actions in Ukraine "will be a costly proposition for Russia.''

Ukrainian military personnel stand guard in the Crimean port city of Feodosia on Sunday. Ukraine is mobilizing for war, calling up reserve troops.
(Thomas Peter/Reuters/Landov)
March 02, 2014

Ukraine Warns Russia: Two Sides On 'Brink Of Disaster'

Ukraine's new government warned Russia on Sunday that the two countries "are on the brink of disaster" after an incursion by Moscow's forces into the Crimea peninsula that has sparked a rapidly escalating international crisis.

Ukraine Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk called on Russian President Vladimir Putin to pull back his troops.

"There was no reason for the Russian Federation to invade Ukraine," Yatsenyuk said after a closed session of his new parliament in Kiev. He called Russia's military intervention a "declaration of war" against his country.

Yatsenyuk's remarks came as the U.S. and European leaders stepped up their denunciations of Moscow's move to seize Crimea — an autonomous region that remains home to Russia's Black Sea fleet despite Ukrainian independence in 1991. There are also reports that partisans, possibly aided by Moscow, are fomenting unrest in Ukraine's Russian-speaking east.

The stunning military incursion that began on Thursday follows last week's ouster of Ukraine's pro-Russia President Viktor Yanukovych after months of anti-government demonstrations opposing his vision for the country's economic and political future. Yanukovych, who subsequently fled to Russia, had sought to keep close ties with the Kremlin, while many Ukrainians believe they need to look west toward Europe.

On Saturday, Russian lawmakers approved an appeal from Putin to authorize the use of force in Ukraine until such time that "the political situation is normalized" in what amounted to a justification for the troops already sent and a blank check for any future deployments.

Ukraine's new and untested government, still finding its feet after barely a week in power, has responded with a nationwide mobilization of troops. NPR's Emily Harris, reporting from Kiev, says:

"No Ukrainian troops are marching, but reservists are being called to register at military offices. ... Meanwhile, Ukraine's parliament approved a 10-point decree in an emergency session on Sunday that calls for troops from Russia's Black Sea fleet to go back to where they are permitted by treaty to be in Crimea — and appeals directly to Putin to not allow Russian forces into Ukraine."

The BBC adds that the decree authorizes "full combat readiness," the setting up of emergency headquarters and increased security at key sites, including nuclear plants.

On the ground in Ukraine, the military situation is confusing, but the BBC reports seeing what appear to be Russian troops digging trenches along the Crimean border — a possible signal that Moscow does not intend a quick withdrawal.

There were reports that about 100 Ukrainian marines were surrounded on Sunday in the Crimean port city of Feodosia by unidentified armed men who have demanded that the garrison pledge loyalty to pro-Russian authorities.

The BBC also reports that:

"[Two] Russian anti-submarine warships have appeared off the coast of Crimea in violation of an agreement governing the presence of Russia's Fleet in the peninsula."

"Russian soldiers are widely reported to be guarding a number of administrative buildings and military bases in Crimea. Parliament, airports, the state television building and telecommunications hubs have also been surrounded."

Reuters reports that Ukrainian coast guard ships were being withdrawn from Crimea and moved to safer Black Sea ports.

Meanwhile, NATO's North Atlantic Council, the alliance's political decision-making body and the NATO-Ukraine Commission, were meeting on Sunday to discuss the crisis.

NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said the allies will "coordinate closely" on the situation in Ukraine, which he termed "grave."

"What Russia is doing now in Ukraine violates the principles of the United Nations charter. It threatens peace and security in Europe," Rasmussen told reporters in Brussels ahead of a meeting of NATO ambassadors, according to The Associated Press.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry on Saturday echoed President Obama's reported comments in a 90-minute phone call to Putin. Kerry called Russia's intervention in Crimea a violation of Ukrainian sovereignty "in full contravention of Russia's obligations."

On Sunday, Kerry told the CBS program Face the Nation that Russia's actions are an "incredible act of aggression" that threatened "very serious repercussions" from the Washington.

"You just don't in the 21st century behave in 19th century fashion by invading another country on a completely trumped up pre-text,"Kerry said.

January 22, 2014

Snowden Says Allegations He Received Russian Help Are 'Absurd'

Former NSA contractor Edward Snowden says that when he leaked classified documents about some of the United States' most sensitive surveillance programs, he did so alone and without any help.

In an interview with The New Yorker, Snowden called whispers that he received help from Russia's security service "absurd."

He told the magazine that he "clearly and unambiguously acted alone, with no assistance from anyone, much less a government." He continued, "It won't stick. ... Because it's clearly false, and the American people are smarter than politicians think they are."

As we reported over the weekend, Rep. Mike Rogers, the Republican chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, strongly implied that Snowden had help from the Russians not only to travel to that country, where Snowden received temporary asylum, but to also steal the information to begin with.

"There's a reason he ended up in the hands, the loving arms, of an FSB agent in Moscow," Rogers said. "I don't think that's a coincidence."

Rogers offered no evidence for his statements.

Snowden said the allegations made no sense.

Had he been spying for Russia, Snowden said, he never would have made a stop in Hong Kong and he certainly wouldn't have spent 40 days at the Sheremetyevo International Airport in Moscow.

"Spies get treated better than that," he told the magazine.

Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov
(Vasily Mximov/AFP/Getty Images)
January 20, 2014

Low Hopes, High Stakes For Syria Peace Conference In Geneva

Can a meeting in Switzerland, known as Geneva-2, solve the crisis in Syria? 

The expectations are low. The warring parties are reluctant. Some of the most important players, including powerful armed rebel groups, are not on the invitation list.

The superpower hosts, the U.S. and Russia, fully back the peace conference, set for Wednesday. They hope to kick-start a political process and end the armed conflict that has ravaged Syria and destabilized the region.

More than 40 countries have been invited, including the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council. But the key delegations are the one representing President Bashar Assad's government and the Syrian National Coalition, the Western-backed, exiled political opposition group based in Istanbul.

The U.N, U.S. and Russia have spent enormous diplomatic capital just to get participants to the table, but can those parties produce a meaningful outcome?

Creating A 'Diplomatic Track'

"They expect some sort of a process to start, or at least they are hoping," says Salman Shaikh, director of the Brookings Doha Center. "There is a fair amount of gloom that they can achieve anything." The lowest common goal, he says, is "a hope and a prayer that the parties show up to continue the discussions in another set of conferences and meetings."

Since the revolt in Syria began, the deep conviction of the Assad regime was to crush the uprising. For the opposition, regime change was the goal. Now, both sides must recalculate. At least, that is the hope.

"Now, they have to create a diplomatic track and conduct negotiations under fire," says Syrian journalist Ibrahim Hamidi. Many Syrians hope for the emergence of "real politics" for the first time in Syria's recent history.

But Shashank Joshi, a research fellow at the Royal United Services Institute in London, sets lower bar for success. "We should think of this as a kind of 'getting to know you,' as a kind of sounding out the parameters of the possible here," Joshi says, "what can be accomplished in terms of limited humanitarian access, for example."

Assad Regime's Bet

Prodded by Russia, the Assad regime was the first to sign up for the negotiations, naming a delegation for a conference which is supposed to create a transitional government in Damascus.

Syria's foreign minister even proposed a cease-fire in the northern city of Aleppo, and promised to facilitate deliveries of humanitarian aid to rebel-held neighborhoods around the capital. Syrian government troops have besieged these areas for months, withholding food and medicine to rebels and civilians alike in a "starve to submission" policy that's been widely condemned by international aid organizations.

The regime's offer was hailed in Moscow as a sign that a political solution was possible after all, but regional analysts interpreted the proposal as a ploy to please the Russians and to cling to power. At the same time, the offer took advantage of the infighting among the political opposition and the turmoil in northern Syria as rebels confront an al-Qaida-linked group.

"It's a question of projecting their bargaining position, of showing they have a good hand," says Joshi of the Royal United Services Institute, describing the regime strategy. This opening offer demonstrates that Assad holds the key to urgent issues and the message is clear. "If you want to be able to enforce a peace, it's the regime you have to go through," Joshi says.

But for the Assad regime, negotiations also pose a threat. "It's a question of survival," says one Syrian commentator, who did not want to be named for fear of endangering his family in Syria. "They can't signal any sign of compromise. They will be in trouble with their base, who will see it as a sign of panic."

A year ago, many Western officials and commentators were predicting the impending fall of Assad and an end to the fighting. Almost no one thinks that way now. Damascus is widely seen as having the upper hand on both the military and political front. Regime forces have reversed rebel gains around the capital and in the contested city of Aleppo with the help of additional ground troops from militias crossing from Lebanon and Iraq.

Assad got a political boost when he became a willing partner to a U.S.-Russia brokered deal to remove his chemical arsenal. The change in perception weighs heavily on opposition leaders who are wary of being drawn into a long process that could result in Assad staying in office.

A Splintered Opposition

The opposition's Western backers have little leverage to force Assad from power, but they did push the opposition to abandon its bottom line (that Assad must go before the negotiations begin). Now the regime's political opponents will have to get something worth having for showing up in Switzerland or risk losing any relevance at all.

Syria's political opposition is a fractious bunch. They waited until the last minute to vote on attending the Swiss talks with debates so heated the organization is near collapse. Under intense pressure from Western governments, which threatened to withdraw support, they were finally forced to the negotiating table because all else failed.

But the delegation has little legitimacy on the ground where armed rebel groups rule. If a deal were to be struck at the Switzerland conference, it's hard to see how the political opposition could implement it inside Syria. Many activists and rebel groups inside Syria remain opposed to the peace conference and say the coalition doesn't represent them.

Revolution Or Terrorism?

The long-anticipated meeting in Switzerland opens with competing narratives about the basic details that sparked the Syrian conflict. The opposition insists this is a revolution, a popular uprising against a tyrannical regime.

"For the Russians and the regime," says Shaikh of the Brookings Doha Center, "this is about fighting terrorism, about dispelling the notion that Assad has to leave." Moscow appears to be backing Syria's insistence that talks should focus on combating terrorism, which Assad claims is back by the West and Gulf Arab states.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry accused the Syrian president of trying to hijack the agenda. "Nobody is going to be fooled" by Assad's attempts to portray himself as the protector of Syria against extremists, Kerry said, "when he, himself, has been funding those extremists."

It is a charge that the rebels have been leveling for months, that the Assad regime covertly backs the al-Qaida-linked Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) as a tactic to undermine any legitimate opposition.

"All of us know that the regime does not attack places held by ISIS," says a Western diplomat. "There is an alliance of convenience between the two. It makes clear to the world where the defense against extremists lies."

January 19, 2014

House Intelligence Chairman Implies Snowden Had Help From Russians

Rep. Mike Rogers made some strong allegations against former NSA contractor Edward Snowden on NBC's Meet the Press Sunday.

Rogers, a Republican from Michigan, implied that Snowden received helped from Russia's security service both to steal the highly classified documents and then to travel to Russia, where he received temporary asylum.

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NBC News reports:

"'He was stealing information that had to do with how we operate overseas to collect information to keep Americans safe.... And some of the things he did were beyond his technical capabilities' — a fact which Rogers said 'raises more questions. How he arranged travel before he left. How he was ready to go, he had a go bag, if you will.'

"Rogers added that he believes 'there's a reason he ended up in the hands, the loving arms, of an FSB (Russian security service) agent in Moscow. I don't think that's a coincidence....I don't think it was a gee-whiz luck event that he ended up in Moscow under the handling of the FSB.'"

While some lawmakers have called Snowden a traitor, these are some of the strongest allegations levied against Snowden, whom polls show Americans consider a whistleblower.

In an interview with The New York Times in October, Snowden said he had ditched all the classified documents he took by the time he landed in Russia.

The revelations made by Snowden spurred President Obama to issue reforms of an NSA program that collects a vast amount of metadata on Americans' phone calls.

During a speech on Friday, where Obama unveiled reforms to some NSA programs, he referred to Snowden only in passing.

"Given the fact of an open investigation, I'm not going to dwell on Mr. Snowden's actions or motivations. I will say that our nation's defense depends in part on the fidelity of those entrusted with our nation's secrets. If any individual who objects to government policy can take it in their own hands to publicly disclose classified information, then we will never be able to keep our people safe, or conduct foreign policy."

The chair of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, Democratic Sen. Diane Feinstein was asked if she thought Snowden had help from the Russians.

"He may well have," she said. "We don't know at this stage."

Snowden has been charged with espionage, theft and conversion of government property.

A woman wiped away tears Monday in Volgograd, Russia, after the second suicide bombing in that city in the past two days.
(Denis Tyrin/AP)
December 30, 2013

'Blood On The Snow' After Second Suicide Blast In Russia

There's shock in the southern Russian city of Volgograd after what appears to have been the second suicide bombing in two days.

Monday morning's blast "tore through an electric bus ... killing 14," The Associated Press reports. About 30 other people were wounded.

The carnage follows Sunday's explosion at the city's main train station — a suicide attack that killed at least 17 people. Another 40 or so were injured by that blast.

Near the scene of Monday's bombing, Reuters writes, a woman choked back tears as she spoke: "For the second day, we are dying. It's a nightmare," she said. "What are we supposed to do, just walk now?"

The BBC says that "Maksim Akhmetov, a Russian TV reporter who was at the scene of the blast, said the trolleybus was packed with people going to work in the morning rush hour. He described the scene as 'terrible,' adding that the bus was 'ravaged' and that there were 'bodies everywhere, blood on the snow.' "

Just as after Sunday's explosion, Russian officials are pointing at Chechen rebels who want to create a separate Islamist state in the Caucuses as those who are likely responsible. The AP writes that:

"Officials did not name names and no one has claimed responsibility for either bombing, but they came several months after Chechen rebel leader Doku Umarov threatened new attacks against civilian targets in Russia, including the [upcoming] Olympics in Sochi [about 400 miles away].

"Suicide bombings and other terror attacks have rocked Russia for years, but most recently have been confined to the North Caucasus region. The successive attacks in Volgograd signaled that militants may be using the transportation hub as a renewed way of showing their reach outside their restive region."

The AP also reminds readers that Volgograd, formerly called Stalingrad, also may have been targeted since it "serves as an important symbol of Russian pride because of a historic World War II battle in which the Soviets turned the tide against the Nazis."

On Morning Edition, NPR Moscow correspondent Corey Flintoff said that Umarov has called February's Winter Olympic Games in Sochi, "Satanic dances on the bones of our ancestors. There's actually some history behind that. The alpine events of the Olympics are taking place in an area where the Russian empire declared victory in its conquest of the North Caucuses way back in 1864."

As for security during the Games, Corey said "some security experts are saying that the real danger may lie in other parts of the country — Volgograd could be an example of that."

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