Tag Archives: anti-war

How Russia Issues Fake Passports to Its Operatives in Ukraine

On 27 October 2014, a man named Igor Nikoalevich Beregovoy arrived in Simferopol, Crimea, after boarding an Aeroflot flight in Krasnodar earlier that afternoon. Igor Nikolaevich was born on 30 December 1965, from the Crimean city of Simferopol.

However, there is another man named Igor Nikolaevich born on 30 December 1965, and who was born in Simferopol — Igor Nikolaevich Bezler, the infamous separatist commander who controlled the city of Horlivka in the Donetsk oblast in 2014, and who has been credibly accused of a litany of war crimes. On October 27th, the same day that “Beregovoy” arrived in Simferopol, Igor Bezler told the press secretary of his former fighting group in Horlivka that he had left eastern Ukraine and would not return.

Bezler is just one of many Russian operatives who were given fake passports by Russian security services while operating in Ukraine. By using leaked Russian databases, only a few basic biographical details can unmask an operative’s fake identity, as seen with another GRU operative — Oleg Ivannikov (“Andrey Laptev”).

Bezler’s Shoddy Fake Identity

Bezler was issued an internal Russian passport under the name Beregovoy, with all the other personal details (date of birth, first name/patronymic) the same as his real identity. Bezler/Beregovoy used this passport to travel in Russia/Ukraine, as revealed in leaked databases freely available online that show Russian air travel activity in 2014.

The ten-digit number for internal Russian passports are easy to decipher. The first two digits indicate the issuing office for the passport, the next two digits indicate the year that the form was printed, meaning that the passport was likely given in either this year or the following one, and the final six digits are the passport’s serial number. Thus, the “passport neighbors” for “Beregovoy” belong to other people issued their documents in the same batch as him. In a previous Bellingcat investigation, we found that GRU-issued passports to Wagner fighters were in the same “passport neighborhood”, with the final digits being fairly close to one another, as they were all processed together.

The passport of “Beregovoy” (numbered 4513078492) was issued by a Moscow office, as indicated by the 45 at the beginning of his internal passport number. The next two digits — 13 — indicate that the form for the passport was printed in 2013, meaning that the passport was issued in either 2013 or 2014. Lastly, the final six digits — 078492 — refer to the serial number of the passports issued by this Moscow office from 2013-printed forms.

One of the easiest ways to verify a Russian citizen’s real identity is through referencing the taxpayer number (INN), given to all Russian citizens as they reach adulthood. However, when searching for the taxpayer number (INN) for a Russian citizen having these same personal details as Beregovoy, there is no result, indicating that this is likely not a real Russian citizen. Additionally, it’s very unlikely that “Beregovoy” would have a different internal passport, as he was issued this one in 2013/4 and would not need to renew his for quite some time. “Beregovoy” was not listed in any publicly available databases for citizens issued replacement passports due to the document being lost or destroyed.

Passport Neighbors

Issuing a fake passport for an infamous war criminal under his real first name, patronymic, and date of birth may seem sloppy, but the story does not end there. If we are to search for Beregovoy’s passport number in the same 2014 flight database, but having the last two digits as a wildcard operator (allowing for any result for these last two digits), we can find his “passport neighbors” for individuals issued passports at around the same time as him. Running this search, we find a startling discovery: Andrei Laptev, the cover identity of GRU officer Oleg Ivannikov.

This flight information shows that Andrei Ivanovich Laptev, born 6 April 1967, flew from Rostov to Moscow on 23 August 2014. Like with “Beregovoy”, running these details through Russia’s taxpayer database brings about no results. More importantly, we can see his passport number: 4513078464. This passport number differs by only twenty-eight digits from that of Beregovoy (4513078492), indicating that they were issued from the same batch.

Andrei Ivanovich Laptev is not a real person; rather, he is the cover identity of Oleg Vladimirovich Ivannikov, born on 2 April 1967 (four days before the birth of “Laptev”). While operating under the cover identity of Laptev, Ivannikov served as the chairman of the Security Council (2004-2006) and as the Minister of Defense and Emergencies (2006-2008) of the self-proclaimed Republic of South Ossetia. While in eastern Ukraine, Ivannikov/Laptev operated under the code names “Andrei Ivanovich” and “Orion”, and were the subject of a 2016 call for witnesses by the official criminal investigation into the downing of MH17, the Joint Investigation Team (JIT). Ivannikov/Laptev’s distinct high-pitched voice can be heard in his phone calls in the embedded video below.

Easily Exploitable Vulnerability

While Russia is able to change its records for its own internal records and databases, the widespread proliferation of leaked Russian databases serves a continuing threat to the secrecy of Russia’s security service operatives. Russia can modify its internal, active records, but once a database is scraped and leaked online, it is fossilized at the point of leaking — in other words, Russia cannot modify the thousands of offline copies of databases floating around on torrents, leaving any potentially dangerous information out of reach of the state.

The aforementioned travel database is just one of countless leaked databases from Russian records, which also include vehicle ownership records, residential lists, social media details (including from deleted profiles), and far more examples.

The post How Russia Issues Fake Passports to Its Operatives in Ukraine appeared first on bellingcat.

Reckless charges of anti-Semitism endanger Palestinians

The baseless claims made by The Forward’s Batya Ungar-Sargon at Bard College last week feed the dysfunction of the American debate on Israel-Palestine, making it more difficult for Palestinians and their allies to advocate for their rights.

Batya Ungar-Sargon speaking at a conference on racism and anti-Semitism at Bard College.

Batya Ungar-Sargon speaking at a conference on racism and anti-Semitism at Bard College (Screenshot October 11, 2019).

In a strange public controversy last week, Batya Ungar-Sargon, the Opinion Editor at The Forward, published a column claiming that she had been protested by members of Students for Justice in Palestine during one of her panels at a conference on racism and anti-Semitism at Bard College, ostensibly “for being a Jew.”

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The article omitted the fact that many of the protestors were Jewish, and were largely objecting to the presence of keynote speaker Ruth Wisse, who has made notoriously racist comments about Arabs. They were also objecting to Ungar-Sargon’s attacks on U.S. Representative Ilhan Omar and her dismissal of the concerns of Jews of color about her editorial decisions at The Forward.

As +972 contributor Mairav Zonszein reported in Jewish Currents on Monday, many other participants at the conference – including the Jewish protestors, fellow Jewish speakers, and Jewish organizers of the event – have revealed that Ungar-Sargon’s op-ed and her departing speech at Bard were grossly misleading and detached from reality. Many of these participants issued their own responses refuting Ungar-Sargon’s account (examples are here, here, here, and here).

This episode is unfortunate yet unsurprising to many observers. In recent years, Ungar-Sargon earned respect in part for actively bringing a diversity of voices to The Forward regarding Israel-Palestine. These included Palestinian writers whose views were radically different from her own, offering them a platform to engage American Jewish audiences that they might otherwise not have interacted with.

Members and supporters of Fordham Students for Justice in Palestine rally on the university's Manhattan campus against the Fordham administration's refusal to register SJP as a student organization, January 23, 2017. (Joe Catron)

Members and supporters of Fordham Students for Justice in Palestine rally on the university’s Manhattan campus against the Fordham administration’s refusal to register SJP as a student organization, January 23, 2017. (Joe Catron)

However, her theatrics at Bard were illustrative of a baseless and reckless diagnosis of anti-Semitism which — in addition to cheapening a serious accusation — has contributed to a dangerous climate for Palestinians and their allies, including Jews, to challenge individuals and ideas that condone their oppression.

In many ways, the current debacle echoes Ungar-Sargon’s role in the saga around Rep. Ilhan Omar, after Omar criticized AIPAC’s political and financial lobbying of Congress by quipping on Twitter that “It’s all about the Benjamins.” The post drew accusations from Ungar-Sargon of espousing “anti-Semitic tropes” — a narrative that quickly dominated the public discourse, tarnished Omar’s reputation, and has made her the target of relentless political attacks to this day.

Though certainly not the sole source of that crisis, it seems Ungar-Sargon has not questioned whether her interventions in those events were accurate, warranted, or productive. In fact, she doubled down on her position while The Forward fundraised from the uproar. Following this incident, many Jews of color who previously contributed to the site criticized Ungar-Sargon and demanded she apologize to Omar — calls that went unheeded. (Those same contributors also stated that they were misrepresented or disparaged by other editorial choices she made in the newspaper).

U.S. Congresswoman Ilhan Omar. (Leopaltik1242/CC BY-SA 4.0)

U.S. Congresswoman Ilhan Omar. (Leopaltik1242/CC BY-SA 4.0)

It is of course legitimate for Ungar-Sargon to have her opinions, and it cannot be emphasized enough that combating anti-Semitism is an urgent and vital task in the political left as well as the right. But her misleading analyses appear to be unduly impacting the American conversation around Israel-Palestine, contributing – intentionally or not – to an atmosphere in which the rights and reputations of many activists wanting to speak up about Israel (and Zionism) are increasingly under attack, from colleges to Congress.

It is not just that her positions are being used by the right to silence Palestinian voices. By presenting herself as an “influential voice among American Jewish progressives” (as she describes in her bio), she is arguably also persuading more ‘moderate’ U.S. audiences to buy into the conflation of Israel critics with anti-Semitic hate groups. This, too, feeds the dysfunction of the debate on Israel-Palestine – the very phenomenon she is supposedly challenging – thus making it more difficult for Palestinians to advocate for their rights.

The damage this has caused is not compensated by the claims Ungar-Sargon made about her work in her speech the day after the protest: that she has published more Palestinian op-eds than any other U.S. outlet; or that she has “spent her entire career embedded in the Palestinian community”; or that she has “convinced more Israelis to vote for the Joint Arab List than you will meet in your life.” (Ungar-Sargon was contacted to elaborate on these assertions for this article; no reply was received).

There are countless Jewish writers and analysts, women and men, who come from different or opposing political camps and who have valuable, credible, and grounded takes on these subjects (including here on +972). The dangerous episodes spurred by Ungar-Sargon undermine her claim to being one of them. Instead of advancing the public discourse, she has sadly done much to regress it.

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Settlers attack olive harvesters, Israeli volunteers in West Bank village

Masked settlers uproot olive trees, set groves ablaze, and beat several Israeli volunteers with stones and metal rods in the West Bank village of Burin.

Rabbi Moshe Yehudai is evacuated from the village of Burin during an olive harvest after being attacked by Israeli settlers from the nearby settlement of Yitzhar. (Rabbis for Human Rights)

Rabbi Moshe Yehudai is evacuated from the village of Burin during an olive harvest after being attacked by Israeli settlers from the nearby settlement of Yitzhar. (Rabbis for Human Rights)

Masked men from the settlement of Yitzhar wielding metal rods and stones attacked volunteers from Rabbis for Human Rights, a human rights organization based in Israel, while they were picking olives alongside Palestinian farmers in the West Bank village of Burin on Wednesday. According to a spokesperson for the organization, settlers set fire to the olive groves, causing a blaze that spread rapidly and burned for hours.

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Israeli volunteers have for years aided Palestinians in the Nablus area with the olive harvest, largely to protect them from settler attacks, which are common. The attack that occurred on Wednesday afternoon was particularly violent: a group of masked men uprooted olive trees, set the grove ablaze, and beat several of the volunteers bloody.

Rabbi Moshe Yehudai, a member of Rabbis for Human Rights’ board, was taken to Meir Medical Center after suffering severe wounds. He recounted the incident while lying on a gurney in an ambulance, as medics bandaged his head. One of the masked youths had hit him on the head with an iron rod, while another instructed him to leave. “I told them to leave me alone, that I am 80 years old and cannot run,” he said.

Avi Dabush, the executive director of Rabbis for Human Rights, said the incident highlighted the lawlessness in the West Bank, stressing that the volunteers would not be deterred from helping the Palestinian farmers as they harvest their olives. “For the last 17 years we have helped with the harvest, and we will continue to stand up against violent bullies,” he said, adding that this was the only way toward a peaceful joint future between Jews and Arabs living on the land.

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AFP reported that Israel sent fire extinguishing planes to extinguish the fire set by the settlers. Researchers for Israeli human rights group Yesh Din estimate that the blaze consumed hundreds of acres of farmland in Burin and Huwara, both villages in the Nablus area.

The Rabbis for Human Rights spokesperson said that a group of settlers had threatened the farmers earlier in the week, threatening to beat them and vandalize their crops. The army has failed to protect the farmers from settler attacks, he noted. Israel’s occupation policies often prevent Palestinians from accessing their own lands, while violent settlers are allowed to roam freely.

Earlier on Wednesday morning, residents of the village of Deir Ammar woke up to discover that unknown vandals, most likely settlers from nearby outposts, had slashed tires and spray-painted Hebrew slogans and Stars of David on their homes and on their cars.

A version of this article was first published in Hebrew on Local Call. Read it here.

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Over 100 Jewish scholars condemn Trump admin for exploiting anti-Semitism

More than 100 Jewish academics sign open letter demanding the Trump administration stop exploiting anti-Semitism in order to quash criticism of Israel on college campuses.

President Donald Trump and First Lady Melania Trump visit a memorial outside the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh Tuesday, October 30, 2018, following the mass shooting that left 11 worshippers dead. (Andrea Hanks/White House)

President Donald Trump and First Lady Melania Trump visit a memorial outside the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh Tuesday, October 30, 2018, following the mass shooting that left 11 worshippers dead. (Andrea Hanks/White House)

Jewish academics are fighting back against the Trump administration’s attempts to silence criticism of Israel on college campuses. More than 100 Jewish scholars have signed an open letter to the U.S. Department of Education in response to its demand that the Duke-University of North Carolina Consortium for Middle East Studies modify its curricular programming or face defunding.

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The open letter to Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, whose signatories include renowned scholar Judith Butler, Noam Chomsky, and artist Molly Crabapple, condemns the Education Department’s recent investigation of the consortium and subsequent ultimatum as “an unfounded and anti-democratic campaign of intimidation” and charges the Education Department with “exploiting fears of anti-Semitism” and “using Jews and our concerns over anti-Semitism to try and justify repressive policies.”

The letter also denounces the “shocking Islamophobia running throughout” the Education Department’s letter announcing the investigation’s findings.

DeVos ordered the investigation into the Duke-UNC Consortium following a complaint that a conference it hosted last March on the politics of the Gaza Strip — which featured several well-respected American, Israeli, and Palestinian experts — demonstrated “severe anti-Israel bias and anti-Semitic rhetoric.”

The Education Department has, under Trump, adopted an aggressive posture toward criticism of Israel and particularly the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions movement — a change perhaps best embodied by the appointment of the department’s civil rights chief, Ken Marcus. A longtime professional pro-Israel operative, Marcus has pushed the government to define the BDS movement as anti-Semitic and to designate anti-occupation and Palestine solidarity activism as violations of Jewish students’ civil rights.

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But while the initial complaint of anti-Israel bias and anti-Semitism was the ostensible catalyst for the Education Department’s investigation, the letter announcing its findings made no mention of either anti-Semitism or Israel. Instead, the Education Department claimed the Duke-UNC consortium was failing to meet its requirements for federal funding by focusing too much on cultural studies courses and topics like “Love and Desire in Modern Iran” and not enough on “advancing the security and economic stability of the United States.” Thus, what began with the pretext of investigating an already spurious accusation of anti-Semitism turned into a rare federal intervention in the curricular programming of an academic institution.

“We have the Department of Education leveraging an attack on a conference related to Gaza to have a chilling effect on free speech overall on campuses,” said Lara Friedman, president of the Foundation for Middle East Peace, and one of the speakers at the conference on Gaza last March. The DOE’s actions, she said during an interview, were “effectively a broadside against Middle East studies programs nationwide that accept any federal funding.”

“The attack on the Gaza conference was bogus from the start,” Friedman added. “Anyone who actually reviewed what happened at the conference would say, ‘this is not anti-Semitism.’ And it appears the Department of Education was unable — assuming they were motivated to try to find antisemitism — to find it.”

U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos speaking at the 2017 Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in National Harbor, Maryland, February 23, 2017 (Gage Skidmore/CC BY-SA 2.0)

U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos speaking at the 2017 Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in National Harbor, Maryland, February 23, 2017 (Gage Skidmore/CC BY-SA 2.0)

Charlotte Rosen, a doctoral student in history at Northwestern University who worked on the Jewish academics’ open letter, called the Education Department’s investigation “a cynical use” of Jewish historical trauma and an attempt to police the conversation about Israeli policy and silence already marginalized voices.

The Jewish academics’ letter, she said, was intended to send a message to the Trump administration of “a rejection coming from the very community they claim to be acting and speaking on behalf of.” Rosen added that the goal going forward would be “to continue to lift up the point that criticism of Israel and Israeli policy is not anti-Semitic.”

The Education Department’s investigation into the Duke-UNC consortium is part of the pro-Israel right’s ongoing anti-BDS offensive. Aided by the Trump administration, that offensive includes Assistant Secretary Marcus’s efforts to change the government’s definition of anti-Semitism, attempts to stifle campus criticism of Israel and Palestine solidarity activism, and anti-boycott bills — which the ACLU considers unconstitutional — that have passed in at least 27 states. American Jewish establishment organizations, from the Anti-Defamation League to the American Jewish Committee, have largely supported these measures.

“We are prepared, apparently, as a community to quash free speech across the board, on campuses, in the public space, if that’s what is required to have an exception for Israel,” Friedman said of the Jewish communal organizations’ approach to the Education Department’s investigation and the rash of anti-boycott bills. “The fact that this is happening at a moment of rising illiberalism, rising lethal anti-Semitism, and our community is actively participating in and contributing to the closing of space for free speech, for social protest, for political protest, is unconscionable.”

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New Evidence Links Russian State to Berlin Assassination

Joint investigation by Bellingcat, Der Spiegel, the Insider and the Dossier Center.

  • In the first part of this joint investigation, we disclosed that the assassin detained by German police traveled on a valid Russian passport issued under the fake identity of “Vadim Sokolov”. We concluded that the usage of a validly issued passport in the name of a non-existent person indicated a link between the assassin and the Russian state.
  • Interim reporting by Der Spiegel and other media has disclosed that the suspect initially traveled from Moscow to Paris and then on to Warsaw, where he rented a hotel room for five days during which he traveled on to Berlin – suggesting he initially intended to return to Warsaw following the Berlin operation.
  • In the interim, we have obtained information that a Russian-issued SIM card was found at “Sokolov”’s hotel room in Warsaw. German and Polish investigators are reportedly analyzing the data linked to that SIM card.
  • In a report from 26 September 2019, the New York Times (NYT) reported that German investigators received a tip from an anonymous source claiming the suspect’s real identity is that of Vladimir Stepanov, a former police officer from St. Petersburg who in 2006 was convicted and sentenced to 24 years in jail for being part of an organized crime group that murdered two people at the orders of a business rival. The NYT quotes a Western intelligence agency as giving credence to the tip, and the NYT partially corroborates this hypothesis by referring to a facial recognition analysis that compared media photographs of Stepanov from the time of his court proceedings to the German police-issued killer’s photograph. German police are cited as yet-undetermined whether Vladimir Stepanov is in fact the person behind the Vadim Sokolov persona. The NYT report did not put its weight behind the hypothesis that Stepanov is Sokolov, but did introduce the mysterious, anonymous tip to the public.

Contrary to the findings of the unnamed Western agency, Bellingcat and its investigative partners Der Spiegel, The Insider and The Dossier Center have concluded that the suspect held by German police is unlikely to be Vladimir Stepanov. This conclusion is based on a weeks-long investigation that analyzed – and ultimately rejected – the hypothesis that the killer and the former police major serving a 24-year sentence are the same person. The same finding was reached independently by the Petersburg-based outlet Fontanka, who claim in September 26 report that Vladimir Stepanov remains in a Russian prison.

In the process of this investigation, Bellingcat and its partners have obtained conclusive evidence that the suspect – whose real identity is still being sought by our team – traveled to Berlin under a cover identity with the active support of the Russian state that created a comprehensive, back-dated paper-trail for this fictitious persona in order to help him obtain the necessary travel and insurance documents, and – crucially – a Schengen visa. These findings preclude the hypothesis that this was an organized crime operation, or even a semi-official operation that received only limited support from individual corrupt officials.

A false lead

Within hours of our initial report that included the first published photograph of the detained hitman, Bellingcat was contacted by an anonymous source who – based on the NYT’s description – appears to be the same source who provided the tip to the German law enforcement, and possibly to Western intelligence agencies. The source believed they had visually identified the suspect as Vladimir Stepanov, the convicted former policeman, and provided information on the place where Stepanov was supposed to be serving the last decade of his long prison sentence. This was the 11th Penal Colony (or IK-11), located in the Russian town of Bor in the Nizhny Novgorod District, about 300 kilometers east of Moscow. This prison’s population includes convicted former law enforcement or intelligence officers, and its walls have seen the likes of both dirty cops and killers and high-profile spies, such as at least 2 former intelligence officers who were exchanged during the notorious 2010 spy-swap case involving ten Russian illegals working in deep cover in the United States.

Over the following weeks, Bellingcat and its investigative partners comprehensively assessed the veracity of this mysterious tip. Despite some early corroborating evidence, for example Stepanov’s similar age, a full match of initials, and a number of striking facial similarities, we ultimately concluded that Sokolov and Stepanov are not the same person.

To reach this conclusion, we initially scoured through hundreds of pages and hours of open source data for a photograph or video clip showing Stepanov. Despite the significant coverage of the high-profile court case in 2005 and 2016 (one of the assassinated businessman was the CEO of Almaz-Antey, Russia’s state-owned monopolist in the production of the Buk anti-aircraft defense system that shot down MH17, and who was reportedly a close personal friend of Vladimir Putin), we were unsuccessful in finding a high-quality photograph of Stepanov allowing forensic comparison.

We then obtained a copy of Vladimir Stepanov’s passport file from a source with access to Russia’s central passport database. It contained two photographs – one taken when Stepanov was 20, and the latter taken around the time he turned 45 (in 2016), as at that age Russian citizens must obtain a new passport.

While visually there are certain similarities between Stepanov’s passport photos and that of “Sokolov”, we could not establish an unequivocal match. Bellingcat then referred the photographs for comparison to Dr. Hassan Ugail, professor of Visual Computing at the School of Engineering Bradford University. Prof. Ugail specializes in facial recognition and age progression simulation techniques.  Prof. Ugail’s determination was that Stepanov and “Sokolov” were two different persons.

“Vadim Sokolov” can be seen on the left and right portions of this matrix (color photographs 1 and 3), and Vladimir Stepanov is on the top and bottom (black and white photographs 2 and 4). Results matrix provided by Prof. Ugail of Bradfort University

In order to further validate this finding, we sought other sources who were familiar with Vladimir Stepanov. We identified and contacted two former police officers from St. Petersburg who served jail time at the same prison outside of Nizhny Novogrod until recently, and whom we assumed might know Stepanov. Both confirmed that they knew Stepanov well – one said Stepanov had been his suborinate – and recognized him on the black & white passport photographs seen above, but not on the photograph of the bearded/mustachioed assassin. Both of these acquaintances of Stepanov also told us that according to the latest information they have, Stepanov was still serving his sentence at the Bor correctional facility. One of the two sources also told us that Vladimir Stepanov never had any tattoos – contrary to the information from German law enforcement sources that “Sokolov” has tattoos on both arms.

Seeking an additional source of validation, our investigative team then established contact with an officer working at the Bor prison facility. This source confirmed to us that Stepanov – as of mid-September 2019 – was still serving time there. This information has been corroborated by a Fontanka report. At our request, the source even took a photograph of Stepanov walking in the prison’s courtyard. Based on comparison to public videos and documentaries about this prison, we were able to geolocate the courtyard as belonging to the IK-11 facility. The images’ metadata also are consistent with the reported timestamp of capturing the photograph in the middle of September.

Based on all of this objective and subjective evidence, we have concluded that it is unlikely that Stepanov is the real person behind the fictitious “Sokolov” persona.

Our assumption for the false-positive match provided by the facial comparison commissioned by NYT is that the source photo of Stepanov used by the researcher is only of a part of a face, and is not facing the camera. A partial face compared to a full (frontal) face is much more likely to produce a false positive than full-face comparison. In addition, individual feature comparison suggests that the 2006 photograph discovered by NYT (middle) bears more similarity with Stepanov’s passport photo (on the left) than with that of “Sokolov” (on the right)

Left: Vladimir Stepanov in an old passport photograph. Middle: Vladimir Stepanov in court. Right: “Vadim Sokolov” shortly after his arrest in Berlin.

To preclude a false negative assessment, our team obtained Stepanov’s criminal record which includes a unique fingerprint formula. This record would arguably make it possible for German law enforcement to compare the formula to the fingerprint data from the actual suspect.

An honest mistake or a red herring?

We are not able to assess if the mysterious tip by the anonymous source was earnest confusion or part of a ruse to sidetrack the investigation and/or discredit investigative media, such as Bellingcat, or intelligence services by coaxing them to publish demonstrably false conclusions. If Bellingcat or another media outlet were to accuse Stepanov of being Sokolov, Russian authorities could easily produce Stepanov — something they have not done with any of the other GRU officers we have unmasked, including Oleg Ivannikov, Anatoliy Chepiga, and Aleksandr Mishkin. We are unable to determine how and why a Western intelligence agency may have concluded that the hypothesis provided by the anonymous source is credible, given our own findings within a relatively short period of time.

Evidence of a state-endorsed operation

In our previous report we based our assessment that “Sokolov”’s operation was highly likely state-sponsored on the fact that he was issued a valid, fully registered international travel passport in the name of a non-existing actual person, and was able to cross the Russian border, suggesting his fake identity was also entered into the central passport database. Further, following the arrest his data was removed from the passport database, which – as well as the issuance of the passport – could not have happened without state involvement.

Our additional investigation has found that the involvement of the Russian state in creating a documentary footprint for the non-existent identity of “Vadim Andreevich Sokolov” is more wide-spread and comprehensive than previously thought. Based on this additional evidence, the concept that this operation may have been set up without the full endorsement of the state apparatus is implausible.

Our investigative team followed the chain of steps that “Sokolov” needed to go through before obtaining the coveted Schengen visa that would allow him to travel initially to Paris, and then onward via Warsaw to his ultimate destination in Berlin. Then ,we made an inventory list of documents and paperwork he would have needed at each step.

As reported in our first publication, “Sokolov” received an international non-biometric passport issued on 18 July 2019, and applied for a Schengen visa on 29 July 2019. In order for him to apply for a visa, this fictitious person would have needed to have the following:

  • A domestic passport and an entry in the Russia passport database. The domestic passport is needed as a precondition for obtaining the international travel passport. It is also a necessary requirement for creating a job “footprint” (see below)
  • Proof of employment, typically in the form of a certificate of employment
  • Bank statement showing sufficiency of funds
  • Travel insurance

A tax identification number for a non-existent man

As we reported previously, two sources with access to the Russia passport database had found no entry for Vadim Sokolov as of early September – after the murder and the arrest of the suspect. We assumed that the Russia passport database had been purged of his data following the murder. However, we also hypothesized that “Sokolov”s passport data may have remained intact in other government databases that may not have (yet) been purged by the Russian authorities. We decided that a good candidate for a database with a forgotten digital footprint would be the tax database. In order for “Sokolov” to show proof of employment to the French consulate, he would have had to be formally (fictionally) employed, most likely by a cutout company used by Russia’s secret services. However, any employment, fictional or not, would lead to mandatory tax registration.

From a source with access to tax records, we were able to obtain a copy of “Vadim Sokolov”’s tax file. As expected, it had not been purged, and contained strong evidence of a freshly-created fictitious persona.

“Vadim Sokolov” was first entered into the Russian tax system on 16 June 2019, and received a tax identification number (INN in Russian) the first time on 23 July 2019 – just five days after the issuance of his international travel passport, and six days before he applied for a visa. Notably, Sokolov received a tax ID number for the first time at age 49. While receiving a tax ID number is not technically mandatory in Russia, a tax registration is automatically triggered by any employment, thus implying that “Sokolov” was first gainfully employed at age 49.

The tax registration, as predicted, also included a domestic passport number for “Sokolov”. This passport was allegedly issued in 2015. Using the passport data in this tax report, we were able to validate its authenticity by entering “Sokolov”’s passport data into the Russian state-run online tax ID validation tool. Based on the passport number, name and date of birth, the tool reported a valid INN number which was the same as the one on the report we had obtained. Thus, effectively “Sokolov” appeared as a valid Russian citizen in one government-run database (the tax registry), while missing completely in another (the passport database).

Our attempts to find any trace of the 2015 passport number listed in the tax record in dozens of Russian databases – including in 2016 and 2018 editions of a comprehensive database of Moscow residents – returned empty results. As the passport number was (allegedly) issued in Moscow, if it had existed as of 2015 it would have shown up in both of these databases. We also tested for the possibility that “Sokolov” may have obtained a passport in Moscow while not being resident there. To this end we searched for his name and birthdate – with any passport number – in several thousands of regional databases leaked over the past 20 years. None of them had an entry for this parrticular “Sokolov”, Notably, these leaked offline databases, which cannot be modified by Russian authorities, include even the fake identities of Skripal poisoning suspects, GRU officers Col. Chepiga and Mishkin. This fact suggests the passport was created in 2019 and “retrofitted” to appear as if issued in 2015.

Having obtained this passport number, we asked one of the sources with access to the real-time Russia passport system to search for it in the database. The source reported that this passport entry was marked with a disclaimer “A person protected by law…To obtain this file, contact an administrator”.

As we have previously reported, several persons who have long worked with the Russia passport database have informed us that such “firewalling” of certain sensitive passport dossiers was introduced for the first time after Bellingcat’s explosive reports identifying the Skripal suspects. Indeed, during our early investigations into the identities of the three GRU officers implicated in the Skripal poisoning, no such firewalls existed, while in later periods our sources were no longer able to access these same passport files, with similar disclaimers appearing in their place.

“No Such Person Here”

The tax file contained another interesting lead: a registered residential address for “Vadim Sokolov”. Unlike the (non-existent) address in St. Petersburg that “Sokolov” claimed in his visa application, the one in his tax record was in Bryansk, a town in western Russia near the border with Belarus.

We obtained an official real estate record for this address, but, unusually, it contained no ownership data. Our collaborative investigative team dispatched a reporter to the stated address and found a run-down house. None of the people at this address knew of a Vadim Sokolov. The person living in the apartment listed in “Sokolov”’s tax file, a man in his eighties, said he does not know of a person by that name, nor if such a person ever lived at that address.

In previous investigations of undercover operatives in Russia, we have come across other “cover” residential addresses that are actually used by elderly people who may or may not be aware of the alternate “on-paper” residents in their apartments.

A missing employee

The employer “Sokolov” listed on his visa application document – and had to provide a certificate of employment with – was a St. Petersburg company called ZAO “RUST”. This is a construction company with a long history, but limited digital footprint. The company’s listed fixed-line phone number is the same as the number listed by a company wholly owned by the Russian Ministry of Defense, but we were not able to establish if the number was used concurrently or at different times.

Our team contacted the CEO of the company, who denied having employed or issued a certificate of employment to Vadim Sokolov. Furthermore he claimed that the company was in reorganization and could not have issued an employment certificate in recent months, as it conducts no economic activity. Still, he promised our reporter to look at the company’s records and inform us if a Vadim Sokolov has ever been employed by RUST. Thereafter, he switched off his phone and has not responded to our repeated attempts to reach him.

While “Sokolov”’s real identity is yet unknown and is the object of our ongoing investigation, our findings so far provide overwhelming evidence that the arrested assassin acted with the full support of the Russian state. The issuance of an array of documents to a fictitious person with no historical evidence of existence – including a last-minute entry into the tax database shortly before his trip to Germany – would not be possible without the direct involvement of a state apparatus. Even less plausible is the ability of a non-state actor to “firewall” the data on a Russian passport behind a disclaimer known to be used to protect personal data relating to undercover special service operatives.

The post New Evidence Links Russian State to Berlin Assassination appeared first on bellingcat.

Simulations, Craters and Lies: Postol’s Latest Attempt to Undermine the Last Vestiges of his Reputation

In the beginning of August 2019, the Tulsi Gabbard campaign published “Reports on Chemical Attacks in Syria”, expressing Gabbard’s views on the allegations of chemical weapons attacks in Syria — and based mainly on the work of Dr. Theodore Postol, Professor Emeritus of Science, Technology, and National Security Policy at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). 

Aside from various errors, contradictions, and misleading statements made on that page, links to the work of Postol on chemical weapons attacks in Syria were included. With this came what was believed to be a previously unpublished report, Computational Forensic Analysis for the Chemical Weapons Attack at Khan Sheikhoun on April 4, 2017, published by Postol and other contributors, that used computer simulations to make the allegation that the crater formed in Khan Sheikhoun was not formed by an air-dropped bomb as claimed by the OPCW-UN Joint Investigative Mechanism (JIM), but, in fact, by the impact of a 122 mm rocket impact. 

Summary Of Postol & Co.’s  Allegations

The main argument of Postol report focuses on the crater that the OPCW-UN Joint Investigation Mechanism report on Khan Sheikhoun stated “was caused by the impact of an aerial bomb travelling at high velocity”, specifically a chemical bomb. According to Postol et al’s report, computer simulations demonstrates this crater was in fact created by the impact of a surface to surface rocket. 

In an October 25, 2017 letter discovered on The Russian Center for Policy Research (PIR Center) website, Postol describes the results of his report to a “Ms. Grebenkina”, requesting help with passing his “document on to the Russian delegation at the UN”. The PDF’s metadata states the original file name was “Note2Sputnik_(October25,2017)_”  — meanwhile, a Sofya Grebenkina works for Russia’s Sputnik News

On October 30, 2017, Sputnik published an article based on the contents of the letter, but did not include Postol’s request that the document is passed onto Russia’s UN delegation. It is unclear why the document is on the PIR Center website. Postol summarises his report as follows:

“Forensic computational analysis performed by two of my colleagues, Professor Goong Chen and Dr. Chung Gu, at Texas A&M University unambiguously explains how this crater was actually created.”

“Our calculations speculated that the crater was formed by a standard 122 mm artillery rocket explosive warhead of the kind that is ubiquitously available for purchase around the world. An example of this standardized warhead is shown in the image below. This particular variant of the warhead weighs about 18.4 kg and has a 6.35 kg explosive charge. The exact weight of the charge in these easily purchased warheads varies somewhat but the explosive effects of charges of slightly different weight is essentially irrelevant to the findings shown in our calculations.”

The image referred to by Postol is shown below. The original source of this image is a slideshow by Tohan SA, a Romainan arms manufacturer:

Image of 122 mm warheads used in Postols’ October 25th 2017 letter

Postol then goes onto state, “Our results show exactly what is observed in the photograph.”

In his letter, Postol then moves on to the rocket motor used. Rather than being a standard 122 mm rocket motor, as used on rockets launched by the regular  platform for launching 122 mm rocket — i.e. the BM-21 Grad multiple rocket launcher — i.e. Postol says the rocket was “almost certainly fabricated locally and a purchased warhead and igniter and nozzle assembly was attached to each end of the improvised rocket.” 

Despite extensive imagery from the conflict in Syria documenting improvised weapons used by both sides in the conflict, Postol does not present a single example of an improvised rocket motor armed with a factory manufactured 122 mm warhead. The authors of this piece are also unaware of any existing examples of this.

Postol finishes the summary of his work thus:

“It is therefore unambiguous that the crater was created by a standard 122 mm explosive warhead of the type that can be purchased anywhere in the world. There is absolutely no evidence of any sarin containing vessel. The split pipe that has been inaccurately identified as evidence of the container filled with sarin is simply the casing of the rocket motor that propelled the purchased warhead to the location of the explosion.”

Comparison Of The Khan Sheikhoun Crater To 122 mm Warhead Impacts

Postol clearly states that the result of his investigation shows how a standard 122 mm explosive warhead formed the crater at Khan Sheikhoun, and that “the exact weight of the charge in these easily purchased warheads varies somewhat but the explosive effects of charges of slightly different weight is essentially irrelevant to the findings shown in our calculations.”

122 mm rockets are used widely in conflicts across the world. The craters formed by their impacts have been filmed and photographed. As Postol himself states the charges of different weights are “essentially irrelevant to the findings shown in our calculations” we can assume that if Postol et al’s calculations are accurate, then there should be many real world examples of craters formed by 122 mm warheads that are comparable to the crater seen in Khan Sheikhoun. 

One particularly well documented instance of 122 mm rocket use is the January 2015 attack on Mariupol, Ukraine, where an urban center came under fire from multiple 122 mm rockets. The remains of rockets documented at the site indicate 122 mm rockets launched from BM-21 Grads were used, and these would carry the “standard” warheads Postol refers to. If Postol et al’s calculations are correct, we should expect to see craters on road surfaces that are a close match to the crater at Khan Sheikhoun.

However, this is clearly not the case when the Mariupol craters are compared to the Khan Sheikhoun crater. The Khan Sheikhoun crater is shown below:

The crater in Khan Sheikhoun (Source:  Aleppo Media Centre)

Forensic Architecture was able to measure the crater, establishing it was 1.61 m wide at i’s widest point, and up to .49 m deep:

 

We can compare this to multiple craters on different surfaces in Mariupol. This graphic from Human Rights Watch show multiple craters, one of which shows the remains of a 122 mm rocket embedded in it, all of which are much smaller than the crater in Khan Sheikhoun:

Human Rights Watch graphic showing 122 mm rocket craters after the January 2015 Mariupol attack (Source)

Bellingcat investigated the 2015 Mariupol attack and put together an extensive collection of videos showing the moment of the attack and the aftermath, with many 122 mm warhead impacts documented. None of these impacts look anywhere near to being the same as the crater at Khan Sheikhoun. Simply put, Postol et al’s claim that the crater at Khan Sheikhoun was created by a standard 122 mm warhead does not match real world evidence, regardless of what their simulation shows.

It is even possible to find 122 mm rocket craters in Postol’s own work, and they — surprise! — do not match the Khan Sheikhoun crater. In Postol’s “An Explanation of the Evidence of Weaknesses in the Iron Dome Defense System” he uses a number of images to explain his conclusions. Figure 16, titled “A rocket exploded near a road in the Sdot Negev Regional Council, causing damage to the road but no injuries. (July 2014)”, shows the remains of a rocket motor next to a small, shallow impact crater.

Figure 16 from Postol’s “An Explanation of the Evidence of Weaknesses in the Iron Dome Defense System” (Source)

A clearer image of the rocket motor can be seen here, while a close up of the motor is seen here. This is the rocket motor of a 122 mm rocket, used widely by Hezbollah, and it would be armed with a “standard” 122 mm warhead. It is unclear how, despite Postol’s extensive work on the Iron Dome system and the rockets it intercepted, including 122 mm rockets, he was unable to see the significant discrepancies between his simulation and real world examples of 122 mm warhead impacts.

Comparison Of The Khan Sheikhoun Crater And The Postol Et Al Simulation

The Postol et al report relies heavily on claims that the remains of the munition inside the crater belong to an improvised 122 mm rocket, with manufacturing defects and with a “standard” 122 mm warhead. There is no reason stated for this measurement being selected, beyond the statement that it fits the simulation. The simulation includes the moment of impact, with the remains of the rocket motor coming to rest in the crater, as shown below:

There are two major discrepancies between this simulation and the actual crater documented at Khan Sheikhoun. 

The remains documented inside the crater do not match the simulation results. Postol et al state that this debris is the remains of an improvised rocket motor, and that this cylindrical rocket motor split due to poor quality manufacturing. According to the simulation, the front end of the rocket motor splits as a result of the warhead detonation, as shown below.

Screenshot from Postol et al’s simulation of the detonation of the simulated munition shortly after the warhead detonates (Source)

After the rocket comes to rest, the split section of the rocket is embedded in the crater, with the cylindrical rear of the rocket still visible:

Screenshot from Postol et al’s simulation of the detonation of the simulated munition after it comes to rest (Source)

In multiple images and videos of this fragment, we can see that what Postol et al believe to be the external side of the rocket motor is covered with what appears to be some kind of textured layer. This layer evenly coats one side of the fragment.

In these images the rough surface of the “rocket motor” is clearly evident (Source)

For anyone who has a basic understanding of how tube-launched artillery works, it is very clear that this coating makes this fragment very unsuited to being part of a rocket motor. This kind of coating would make it extremely difficult, if not impossible, to fit this “122 mm rocket motor” into a launch tube. It would also make it very inaccurate.

Postol et al also suggest that this “122 mm rocket motor” had a “weld” with a “strengthened edge”. Their simulation “assumes the preexistence of structural weakness along a generatrix of the cylinder, due to possible welding in the fabrication of a pipe”.

Illustration from Postal et al’s paper showing their modelling of the rocket

However, a closer examination of this “strengthened edge” does not appear to support the conclusion of Postol et al. Although said “edge” does appear to be a weld, after having modelled this fragment, we believe it is in fact part of the casing of a much larger munition. 

Close up photograph of the fragment in the crater

Using a large number of images and videos of the fragment in the crater we have modelled what we believe this fragment could look like, both in its folded shape and once it has been unfolded. 

Top: fragment in its folded state. Bottom: fragment in its unfolded state

One significant feature of the metal fragment is a curved metal bar attached to the fragment, which, according to Postol’s claim, must have run the length of the improvised rocket motor. The simulation does not appear to account for this feature, or how it would have been bent inwards by the detonation of a 122 mm warhead at the opposite end of the rocket motor. In Postol’s letter, published by Accuracy.org, Postol describes the metal fragment as follows:

“The OPCW report never identifies the metal “object” in the crater as a pipe of roughly 120 mm diameter. It instead describes the pipe as an object that the investigators assess was produced by the impact of a bomb of roughly 300 to 500 mm diameter. There is no explanation for how a sheet of metal could be rolled into a uniform diameter pipe of 122 mm diameter. The object that is a pipe is never described as pipe in the reports while the other object is identified in the report as a filler cap.”

What is claimed to be a “122 mm pipe” in the Khan Sheikhoun crater

It is difficult to understand how anyone who had taken the time to review the images of the metal fragment would come to the conclusion it was “a uniform diameter pipe of 122 mm diameter” as claimed by Postol. This claim simply doesn’t stand up to the most cursory examination of the images in question. 

Inconsistencies between simulated and actual crater

Not only does the simulator crater not match any other 122 mm rocket craters we have observed, it doesn’t even match the crater seen at Khan Sheikhoun. 

In Postol’s simulation, the rocket impacts a road where the tarmac is simulated as being 10 cm thick, with soil underneath. In the simulation we see that outside the bowl of the crater, the tarmac suffers extensive damage across a wide area. This damage is localised to the northern side of the crater bowl, and ranges from 1 cm to 10 cm in depth.

Damage seen in simulation. Note the extensive damage to the tarmac to the left (north) of the crater.

Nothing like this kind of damage is seen in the actual Khan Sheikhoun crater. The tarmac on the north side of the crater is almost completely undamaged, saved for several cracks. If the simulation was accurate, the area highlighted in yellow below would display significant damage, with lacerations going down at least 10 cm. 

Comparison of damage seen in Postol’s simulation to actual crater (Source)


In fact, the kind of damage seen in the simulation is not seen in any direction around the crater. 

Note that no area around the crater displays anything like the level of damage seen in the simulation (Source)

This type of damage, which is part of the simulation, is consistent with other examples of 122 mm rocket impacts. During the detonation of the warhead shrapnel is blown outwards, and, when on flat surfaces, can leave a distinctive fan pattern. 

This is something Postol should be well aware of. On May 22, 2019, Accuracy.org published New Assessments from Leading Scientist Accuse OPCW Leadership of Rigging on Alleged Syrian Chemical Weapons Attacks Used to Justify U.S. Bombings, based on letters and articles submitted by Postol to various bodies in relation to his report. In a covering letter, addressed to the “German Foreign Ministryl (sic)”, Postol reiterates his positions based on his latest analysis, including the following statement:

“The supercomputer calculations show that the geometry of the charge and its orientation relative to the ground produce a classic crater that has a tear-drop shaped perimeter (that is, a perimeter that is not circular). Craters with this shape are known to be produced by artillery rockets, as is documented in the UN manual for peacekeepers in the document, Introduction to UN Peacekeeping Pre Deployment Training Standards.

“Section 1.2, titled, Verification of Minefields, Explosive Remnants of war and Crater Analysis contains the basic information on crater recognition used by UN peacekeepers in the field. Similar discussions can be found in US Army Artillery Officer Field Manuals. These characteristics of artillery rocket craters are therefore very well known to true professionals who deal with these matters.”

The document he refers to includes diagrams of impact craters from various munitions. The following image shows the impact crater from a low angle fuze crater, created by munitions such as artillery shells and 122 mm rockets:

Image from UN Peacekeeping Pre Deployment Training Standards showing a low angle fuze crater

At Bellingcat, we are quite familiar with these craters and the measuring methods described in the UN Peacekeeping Pre Deployment Training Standards document. In 2015 and 2016, Bellingcat published two reports using a combination of satellite imagery showing crater impacts and the measuring methods described in the UN document to identify dozens of sites of cross border artillery attacks from the Russian Federation into Eastern Ukraine. 

It is clear from the diagrams in the UN document that the craters described do not match the crater visible in Khan Sheikhoun, most notably for the lack of side spray from the detonation of the 122 mm warhead Postol et al have simulated.

In the video below, the simulation has been overlaid with an image of the real crater, showing where we would expect to see this damage:

The following comparison of the real crater and the simulated crater clearly shows the lack of damage in areas the Postol et al simulation indicates there should be damage — i.e. to the north of the crater:

Although the crater bowl is superficially similar in shape, the damage outside the bowl itself cannot simply be discounted, as it provides vital information about the nature of the munition and its direction of travel. It seems incredible that the authors of this paper could claim that “the computational mathematics and mechanics calculation essentially predicts most or all of the observed features of the crater at Khan Sheikhoun” because, as we see above, this is simply not true. 

In the above video, it is notable that the warhead remains modelled in pink cross a space occupied by a metal cabinet. This is significant, because while Postol et al’s simulation shows this pink spray clearly damaging the floor around the crater, they have not modelled anything in the location of the metal utility cabinet. 

Based on the simulation, it would appear there should be significant damage to this cabinet, but images from the scene show this is obviously not the case. The following video clearly shows no shrapnel damage is visible on the metal cabinet:

 

However, in the text of the report, Postol et al argues that this cabinet should be undamaged:

“Another argument made by the experts engaged by the JIM cites the scarcity of “visible signs of damage caused by fragmentation or overpressure, especially on the metal cabinet located 3 to 5 m away from the crater” [3, para 54]. Although it is not clear from the report, it appears that this observation applies to one of specific scenarios considered by the JIM, namely the one in which the crater was created by an explosive charge placed on the ground. In this scenario one indeed would expect to see a certain damage to the metal cabinet. However, in the scenario considered here, it should be taken into account that a cylindrical explosive charge, such as a 122-mm warhead considered in this analysis, would not produce a spherically-symmetrical blast wave or a debris cloud. For munitions with a high length-to-diameter ratio most debris would be distributed in an annular pattern that is perpendicular to the munition axis (pointed forward if the motion of the munition is taken into account). This effect, in fact, can be seen on the second panel of the explosion sequence shown on Figure 3.1. The location of the metal cabinet placed it in the solid angle that is unlikely to be affected by the explosion debris.”

At best, this demonstrates the simulation should have included some representation of the metal cabinet. This, combined with the lack of damage around the crater that’s present in the simulation, calls into question the accuracy of the claim made in the report that the simulation genuinely recreates the crater seen at Khan Sheikhoun, and certainly not as Postol claimed showing “exactly what is observed in the photograph.”

Problematic Methodology

Although Postol et al chose to simulate Postol’s previous, discarded theory, that a container of Sarin was blown open on the ground, they chose not to simulate a liquid-filled, air dropped munition. This is especially strange considering this hypothesis is the one proposed by the OPCW-UN JIM, regarded as the authority on the matter of chemical attacks.

Despite the wide and extensive range of evidence examined by the OPCW-UN JIM, the authors simply decided that they wouldn’t simulate it, a rather bizarre decision.

Publishing 

Postol et al’s paper is written in an academic format as if it has been published in a journal, however we could not find any reference to it in any peer reviewed publication. The only sources for the paper appear to be Tulsi Gabbard’s website and Accuracy.org. According to Accuracy.org, “This manuscript has been accepted for publication by Science and Global Security, a refereed science-based journal published out of Princeton University.”

At the time of writing, the journal in question has not published this paper. We struggle to see how a peer reviewed journal could publish a document with so many grave and self evident errors, especially since said document already appears to have been used by a state party in an attempt to undermine the OPCW-UN JIM.

The post Simulations, Craters and Lies: Postol’s Latest Attempt to Undermine the Last Vestiges of his Reputation appeared first on bellingcat.

Behind Netanyahu’s scorched earth campaign against Israel’s media

Just one week out from the second national elections in six months, Prime Minister Netanyahu’s relationship with the Israeli media seems to be at an all-time low. But are his ferocious attacks on the press all they seem?

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks to the media at the Knesset, in Jerusalem on May 30, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks to the media at the Knesset, in Jerusalem on May 30, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

In the final stretches of Israel’s second election campaign in six months, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s tried-and-tested tactic of attacking the media has once again been dominating the headlines.

The prime minister has long had an adversarial relationship with the national press, but he appears to have stepped up the vitriol in recent weeks. At the end of August, in a Facebook live video, he accused the Keshet Media Group of committing “a terror attack against democracy” for probing his corruption scandals through Channel 12 news. This came a day after he called for a boycott of the same company over its joint production of HBO’s “Our Boys,” which he blasted as “anti-Semitic,” also on Facebook. The reporter at the heart of Netanyahu’s accusations, Guy Peleg, has since been assigned a bodyguard.

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Netanyahu again attacked Channel 12 earlier last week, labeling it a “leftist propaganda channel” in a Telegram message to his supporters, in which he also took a swipe at the much-revered Jewish National Fund for buying advertising space in the outlet. At the same time, the prime minister has been sowing false stories about the supposedly impending theft of the upcoming election through Palestinian voter fraud.

Fresh revelations have recently emerged about the extent of Netanyahu’s efforts to mold the Israeli media landscape in his image, following the leak of a conversation between himself and his successor as communications minister, Ayoub Kara. To cap it all, Netanyahu’s various trials on corruption charges — including two involving his attempts to manipulate media coverage of himself and his family — are edging ever-closer.

But is Netanyahu’s scorched earth campaign really all that it seems? Does the media play a role in fanning the flames? And is the trend of global authoritarianism having an impact on the media landscape in Israel-Palestine? In order to dig into these questions and more, +972 Magazine spoke with Shuki Tausig, editor of the Israeli media watchdog The Seventh Eye.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

In this final stretch of the current election campaign, Netanyahu’s attacks on the media seem to have moved up a gear. What’s caused these latest outbursts?

“There’s actually nothing new on this front. Netanyahu has been using the media as a target since his first candidacy for prime minister in the 1990s. One of his most famous quotes came more than 20 years ago, when he chanted ‘They. Are. Afraid!’ to a crowd of Likud supporters at a campaign event [in 1999, when he accused the left of conspiring with the media to defeat him]. Any populist leader who operates on fear and hate needs to find a target or agent for that fear and hate. For Netanyahu, the media was the candidate from the start, and in the last few years has been joined by Israeli Arabs, or Israeli-Palestinians.

“The attacks have been escalating recently, but that’s because of the medium more than the content. If 20 years ago Netanyahu needed to shout at campaign rallies, and 10 years ago he needed to court journalists to interview him, now he has his own microphone with Facebook, where he can say anything he wants without limitations. There are laws restricting propaganda in an election period, but these don’t apply online — only in the traditional media. It’s the same way Trump and other populist leaders around the world manipulate social media.

“But Netanyahu also has a unique campaign method — he uses his son, Yair, as a proxy. Yair has his own social media accounts, and Netanyahu uses them as a testing ground. A lot of the more aggressive and poisonous remarks you see Netanyahu publishing on social media were first tested on Yair’s accounts. Yair publishes the comments, they see how the public and the media react to it, and then they decide whether to bring it up to [Netanyahu’s] level.”

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So you’re saying that what we’ve been seeing in the last few weeks and months is less Netanyahu changing, and more that we’re just seeing him unfiltered? 

“Right. It’s a change in style, not in content, and a change in quantity, rather than quality. But of course, when you change quantity, the quality also changes. When you become more and more aggressive, it becomes a whole new game.”

Has anything at all changed over the last few elections?

“In the last three or four election campaigns, the recurring motif has been the use of Arabs and journalists as a scapegoat — for example, his famous video from election day in 2015, in which he said that left-wingers are bussing Arabs to the polls. The same messages are being repeated now: ‘The Arabs are stealing the election,’ ‘they’re falsifying the polls,’ etc., alongside attacks on the media.

“The thing Netanyahu is changing is the tone. You can see the difference between him and previous prime ministers, and also between him now and him five or 10 years ago. He’s become more and more aggressive and paranoid. And that’s because a lot of norms and working assumptions that we used to have are now divided across a left-right agenda.

“Five, 10, or 20 years ago, things like the desire for peace, coexistence between Israeli Arabs and Israeli Jews, and respect for basic rights were considered common interests across the political spectrum, even if they disagreed on how to achieve it. Now, they’re divided, and it’s Netanyahu who’s pushing the envelope on this, but he’s doing it through deceit and lies. He’s not waving a flag and saying, ‘let’s all be racists, kill all the Arabs, hang all the journalists.’ Instead, he’s using implication and innuendo to send the same message.

“This works for him: if you look at the Noam party, which is very open about saying, ‘We think homosexuals are not normal, we want to ban them,’ they’re not doing well, because most people don’t like hearing that. But Bibi says what’s good for him politically at any given moment, and it’s confusing. That’s what’s causing the deterioration. And there have always been racists and fascists, but high-ranking politicians never spoke like Netanyahu does now.

“Netanyahu has brought us into this age. But it might have happened without him, because you see it happening in the U.S., in Europe, and all over the world. So, if it wasn’t Netanyahu, perhaps someone else would have got us here.”

You mentioned Trump, and current global trends. Do you think the global rise in authoritarianism is playing a role here?

“Of course it’s related — Netanyahu is learning from Trump and Trump is learning from Netanyahu, and they’re both learning from the experiences of Eastern European populist leaders and dictators, and African dictators. It’s not a secret, because they’re all using the same advisors: George Birnbaum, Aron Shaviv, the late Arthur Finkelstein, etc.”

All three advisors Tausig mentions have counseled Netanyahu. Birnbaum has also advised Viktor Orbán and Ben Carson. Shaviv has advised numerous right-wing leaders in Central and Eastern Europe. Finkelstein advised Orbán, Strom Thurmond, and many other right-wing leaders across a 50-year career.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu holds a joint press conference with Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, at the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem, on July 19, 2018. (Marc Israel Sellem/POOL)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu holds a joint press conference with Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem, on July 19, 2018. (Marc Israel Sellem/POOL)

“The same people are running from dictator to dictator and populist leader to populist leader,” adds Tausig. “So, of course there is a connection. However, none of these politicians have invented anything. Netanyahu didn’t invent using the media as a scapegoat, nor did Trump. Just look at the relationship between Nixon and the media, for example. But any great leader, for good or for bad, will add their own touch. And Bibi is adding his unique touch of hatred and aggression, and making his mark on the propaganda world.”

In the wake of the latest allegations about Netanyahu’s efforts to manipulate the media, can you summarize the list of outlets the prime minister has tried to influence in one way or another, and how?

“It’s impossible to summarize, because Netanyahu has been involved in so many efforts to intervene in the media, from the radio to the internet, as a minister and as a prime minister. It’s a book. He’s constantly active, even when he’s legally barred from interfering.”

Thinking historically, is there a precedent for such a negative relationship between an Israeli prime minister and the Israeli media? 

“Political leaders in Israel hating the media and attacking journalists is nothing new. [David] Ben-Gurion hated a famous paper called HaOlam HaZeh. He attacked it viciously and wouldn’t even mention it by name. He also recruited the Israeli secret service to establish a rival paper to undermine the publication. And according to HaOlam HaZeh editor Uri Avneri, Ben-Gurion also sent the secret service to burn the offices of the paper.

“So, Netanyahu is not the first prime minister to attack the media. [Ariel] Sharon hated a lot of journalists, he sued them. [Ehud] Olmert called journalists working for the [Jerusalem-based weekly] Kol Ha’Ir ‘vampires.’ So, we have to put everything in proportion. Netanyahu is not a villain among angels. The Israeli public arena is full of hatred.”

In that case, is the bad blood between Netanyahu and the Israeli media a chicken-and-egg scenario, or is one side more responsible than the other? 

“First of all, there’s a lot of fakeness in this relationship. Netanyahu is in constant contact with many journalists, including those he regularly attacks. So, the picture presented by the media from one side and Netanyahu from the other side is the wrong one. Dealing with journalists takes up a large part of Netanyahu’s day — talking with them, briefing them. When he wants to be interviewed, he goes to the TV station and gets an interview.

Prime Minister Netanyahu making a recorded public address. (YouTube) screenshot)

Prime Minister Netanyahu making a recorded public address. (YouTube screenshot)

“It’s convenient for Netanyahu to talk to his base about a war of annihilation between himself and the media, but it’s not the case. He works hand-in-hand with a lot of publishers and journalists. And a lot of journalists and media outlets also benefit from this image of being at war with Netanyahu. It’s the same thing as Trump being the best present the Washington Post could get. Media outlets benefit from being depicted as martyrs. So, they shoot at each other, and then get coffee together and it’s business as usual.”

How would you assess the damage Netanyahu’s done to the country’s media landscape? Can it be reversed, once the long-speculated ‘day after Netanyahu’ arrives?

“Actually, Netanyahu hasn’t done that much damage to the media landscape. He’s tried, but the media is so internally corrupt that some of his biggest efforts to undermine it actually helped the public interest, because he demolished — or at least weakened — a lot of corrupt outlets and journalists. The problems with the Israeli media didn’t start or end with Benjamin Netanyahu, and he will only be a footnote in the history of Israeli media corruption. Noni Mozes [the publisher of the Yedioth Ahronoth daily, involved in one of the corruption cases Netanyahu is also implicated in] did a lot more to corrupt the media than Netanyahu.

“It’s easy for the Israeli left to forget how things were before Netanyahu, but the main problem with the Israeli media is not Netanyahu, or the right, or racism, even though these are all big problems. The problem, rather, is that journalists and media all across the spectrum are working for their owners and their owners’ interests, and for commercial and political interests, rather than for the public.

“The names can vary. Today it’s Netanyahu, yesterday it was Sharon, and tomorrow it will be someone else. But this is the most important thing I have to say about it — populist leaders like Trump and Bibi couldn’t stoke so much hatred and fear toward minorities and the media if the media itself was working in the public interest. If the public thought that the media was working for them, Bibi wouldn’t succeed [in his attacks]. You can’t convince the public to hate something they love; you can only convince them to keep hating something they already hate.”

The post Behind Netanyahu’s scorched earth campaign against Israel’s media appeared first on +972 Magazine.

The “Hardcore” Russian Neo-Nazi Group That Calls Ukraine Home

murderous crew of hateful people.

Written by Michael Colborne with contributions from Oleksiy Kuzmenko

They’re devoted to a brand of neo-Nazism so blatant, including openly glorifying Hitler, that even its leader admits is too “hardcore” for the public space. 

Wotanjugend, which its founder described in 2016 as an online “mini-university for supporters of right-wing ideology,” has praised far-right terrorists like Timothy McVeigh and Anders Breivik as “heroes.” Their website shares Russian-language translations and articles; offline they organize neo-Nazi concerts, host classes on “racial theory,” give firearms training sessions and even put on private concerts with a very subtle clues of neo-Nazism, such as a framed picture of Adolf Hitler flanked by swastikas on a candlelit altar.

The altar with a photo of Adolf Hitler and a Nazi flag at Wotanjugend’s “Fuhrernight” in May 2019

More recently they have become, like much of the global far-right, dedicated fans of the perpetrator of the March terrorist attacks on two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand. In a post after the attacks, Wotanjugend called the shooter a “vengeful Viking who has definitely earned his place in Valhalla.” 

But, as we reported in our previous investigation, Wotanjugend also promoted a Russian-language translation of the Christchurch shooter’s manifesto that got more than 25,000 views. However, they quietly removed it from their website after our investigation named them as promoters of the manifesto — and after Ukraine’s ambassador to New Zealand, in response to our investigation and subsequent comments from New Zealand’s Prime Minister, pledged that Ukraine would prosecute anyone distributing the manifesto. But Wotanjugend has not removed a separate post praising the shooter, nor have they removed the disturbing livestreamed video of the attacks that they had shared.

A Wotanjugend sticker reading “Blood, Fatherland, Faith” in Russian.

Wotanjugend was born in Russia, and publishes its online content almost exclusively in Russian. Today the self-described “hammer of National Socialism” is based in Ukraine and, for all intents and purposes, is part of the country’s far-right Azov movement that is trying to expand its domestic and international influence.

But Wotanjugend’s activities aren’t just limited to the web. In 2018 the head of Wotanjugend met with members of violent American neo-Nazi gang Rise Above Movement (RAM) in Kyiv. Wotanjugend also recently hosted a seminar that included lectures on race, firearms training and even a mock knife fight tournament. Moreover, the head of the group, Alexei Levkin, is hopeful he will receive Ukrainian citizenship, and has been a key figure in Azov’s public push to get Ukrainian citizenship for far-right friends from abroad who have joined their ranks.

With its message that includes terrorist fanboying and literally worship of Hitler, Wotanjugend continues to operate openly in Ukraine, using the country as a base to grow and to spread its message of hate worldwide.

A self-styled “elite neo-Nazi avant-garde” 

As we wrote in our previous investigation, Wotanjugend has its roots in the early-2000s neo-Nazi music scene in Russia. Its leaders and members, according to the authors of Militant Right-Wing Extremism in Putin’s Russia: Legacies, Forms and Threats, “styled themselves as an elite neo-Nazi avant-garde.” 

Many Russian far-right nationalists have, perhaps to the surprise of many, been anti-Kremlin and opposed Putin’s rule due to their perception of his soft stance on issues like immigration, best seen in the annual “Russian March”. While a large portion of the Russian far-right was instrumental in fomenting and fighting in the ongoing war in eastern Ukraine, some factions of the Russian far-right actually supported the protests on Maidan Nezalezhnosti in Kyiv that mushroomed into the February 2014 revolution and have found room to operate within Ukraine. This included two of Wotanjugend’s leaders, Ivan Mikheev and Alexey Levkin. 

As Russian and Russian-led forces — including a sizable presence of Russian far-right nationalists, namely through the influence of Konstantin Malofeev and Eduard Limonov — began war in the Donbas in April 2014, some Wotanjugend members were among Russian far-right nationalists who came to Ukraine to fight with far-right pro-Ukrainian forces, including the Azov Battalion. Mikheev and Levkin, along with other Russian neo-Nazis like Roman Zheleznov, came to Ukraine in late 2014; Levkin and others remain in Ukraine five years later. 

Levkin is the most public face of Wotanjugend. In a 2019 interview with a magazine of Greece’s neo-Nazi Golden Dawn, Levkin described himself as a “political ideologist” in Azov’s National Militia, the paramilitary street wing of the Azov movement that Levkin called the “combat wing” of National Corps, Azov’s political party. 

Levkin has a past full of neo-Nazi extremism and violence in his native Russia. In 2006 he was arrested for double murder, but the charges were later dropped; he was also part of a neo-Nazi gang that allegedly took part in vandalism of Jewish and Muslim graves at a cemetery, a number of assaults and at least four murders. Levkin was reportedly detained for compulsory psychiatric treatment and released in 2011. 

Wotanjugend grew out of Levkin’s musical activities in Russia, which primarily included fronting the neo-Nazi band M8l8th (М8Л8ТХ in Russian; molot meaning hammer in Russian, with the two ‘O’s replaced by 8’s to form 88, “Heil Hitler” in neo-Nazi numeric code). In a 2016 interview, Levkin stated that “we created our online resource as a mini-university for supporters of right-wing ideology” and “a resource where our readers can obtain exhaustive information on the widest range of topics as far a right-wing worldview is concerned,” including what he dubbed “acts of heroism by Europeans.”

In an interview in January 2019, Levkin described Wotanjugend as mostly an online entity, one that was “way too hardcore to be represented in the public sphere” as an active physical organization. In its place, Levkin argued that “there’s already a movement that deserves support…I’m talking about [Azov’s] National Corps and the National Militia as the former’s power wing.”

Levkin posing with Andriy Biletsky, leader of Azov’s National Corps political party and defacto head of the Azov movement.

As we noted in our previous investigation, Levkin has links with another Azov figure, Olena Semenyaka, the National Corps’ ‘international secretary’ who is responsible for networking and forming relationships with far-right groups in other countries. Semenyaka was recently in Croatia along with other Azov figures to make preparations for an international far-right conference Azov plans to host in Zagreb in the fall of 2019. The two have helped organize a neo-Nazi record label and shop that sells neo-Nazi music and paraphernalia with open Nazi symbolism at the Azov movement’s Cossack House in central Kyiv.

A photo from a post on Wotanjugend’s Telegram channel promoting the “Militant Store” inside Azov’s Cossack House in central Kyiv, where swastika pendants (in the white circle, zoomed in) are clearly visible.

The first batch of tickets for the December Asgardsrei festival, a neo-Nazi music festival founded by Levkin in Russia that now takes place in Kyiv, went on sale last weekend at the Azov movement’s “Young Flame” event, an event filled with openly far-right, neo-Nazi rhetoric and imagery

Tickets for December’s neo-Nazi “Asgardsrei” concert on sale at the Azov movement’s “Young Flame” event on August 31, 2019.

Last year’s Asgardsrei concert featured neo-Nazi bands from across Europe including infamous Greek neo-Nazi band Der Stürmer, named after the Nazi newspaper, whose songs include “Piles of Pigheads in the Synagogue” and “Dawning Israel’s Perdition.”

Wotanjugend, however, does more than just host neo-Nazi concerts and post neo-Nazi propaganda online. In August 2019, a claimed 50 participants took part in Wotanjugend’s “Thule Signal” event, where they attended lectures on “racial theory,” received firearms training and even took part in a mock knife fight tournament filled with Azov chest salutes and Azov handshakes

A screenshot from a video of Wotanjugend’s “Thule Signal” seminar, featuring a mock knife fighting tournament

Participants at Wotanjugend’s “Thule Signal” seminar giving a ‘traditional’ Azov handshake grasping each others’ forearms.

Part of Wotanjugend’s event took place at an Azov facility in Kharkiv, a “nationalist hub” whose opening was attended by Andriy Biletsky. 

Firearms training at Wotanjugend’s “Thule Signal” seminar at an Azov movement “nationalist hub” in Kharkiv, Ukraine.

Levkin has also met with members of the Rise Above Movement (RAM), a violent American white supremacist group. RAM once described themselves as the “premier MMA club of the Alt-Right,” and visited Kyiv in 2018 as guests of the Azov movement, meeting with Semenyaka and others. Four of RAM’s members were charged in 2018 for violence at rallies in 2017, though a judge dismissed their case on First Amendment grounds in June 2019. 

The 2018 FBI criminal complaint against the organization notes that 2018 Instagram post pictured RAM’s leadership meeting with Levkin on their trip to Ukraine. The post, now deleted, stated that “it was an honor to meet the singer and patriot from #m8l8th.”

Excerpt of 2018 FBI criminal complaint mentioning “the singer” from M8l8th, Alexei Levkin.

Wotanjugend’s links with Ukraine’s Azov movement are especially noteworthy as Ukraine’s new Cabinet of Ministers was announced in late August, a cabinet that still includes powerful interior minister Arsen Avakov, widely seen as the patron and protector of the Azov movement. Some reports have suggested Avakov kept his post, at least for the short-term, by promising to limit the power and influence of far-right groups like Azov.

Wotanjugend’s terrorist “heroes” 

A whole section on Wotanjugend’s website is dedicated to “heroes” — articles about famous Nazi-era and neo-Nazi figures, including perpetrators of far-right terrorist acts. 

Some of these “heroes” include Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh; Wotanjugend called him a “lonely hero” and shared an article praising him on the anniversary of his executions for his 1995 act of terror. The graphic Wotanjugend shared of McVeigh featured the ‘life’ and ‘death’ runes formerly used by the SS. 

Anders Breivik, the perpetrator of the 2011 terror attacks in Norway, is another “hero” to Wotanjugend, whom they called “the last Viking of the northern seas.” Their website even features a translation part of the rambling speech Breivik gave at his trial in 2012. Wotanjugend also wrote that American neo-Nazi David Lane, who was sentenced to 190 years in prison for a series of crimes that included taking part in the murder of a Jewish talk radio host, was “a hero of our times.” Lane was the author of the “14 words,” a common white supremacist and neo-Nazi slogan. 

Another “hero,” as previously mentioned is the Christchurch shooter. In a post after the attacks Wotanjugend called the shooter a “true Viking,” a “vengeful Viking who has definitely earned his place in Valhalla.” While Wotanjugend apparently deleted their translation of the shooter’s manifesto from their website after our previous investigation, the entire livestreamed video of the attacks is still available in its entirety on its Telegram channel, along with memes praising the shooter.

Literally Hitler

Another one of Wotanjugend’s “heroes” is someone whose birthday they called “a joyful and wonderful holiday” — Adolf Hitler. 

A flyer for Wotanjugend’s “Fuhrernacht.”

Wotanjugend are inspired by what academics and researchers refer to as esoteric Nazism or esoteric Hitlerism, a brand of neo-Nazism that incorporates often bizarre mystical, occult adaptations of Nazi ideology, including venerating Adolf Hitler as a literal godlike figure.

In May 2019, Wotanjugend hosted a private event called “Fuhrernight” in Kyiv, which featured Nazi flags, photos of Adolf Hitler on an altar surrounded by candles. It also featured a reading of hagiographic Hitler poems by another Russian neo-Nazi who teaches yoga at Azov’s Cossack House, and has a visible tattoo of esoteric Nazi figure Savitri Devi, who believed that Hitler was an avatar of the Hindu god Vishnu.  

Levkin’s own Hitler worship isn’t hard to find. Another band of Levkin’s is publicly called “AKVLT” — or, Adolfkvlt, as the group’s previous releases make clear. 

Releases from Levkin’s band “AKVLT” — “Adolfkvlt.”

According to social media from the record label and shop affiliated with Wotanjugend, Adolfkvlt will be performing live at Asgardsrei in Kyiv in December 2019. 

“To sing about murder, one has to kill”

Levkin’s main neo-Nazi music output is through his band M8l8th. The band is no mere hobby for him; in an interview earlier this year with a magazine of Greece’s neo-Nazi Golden Dawn, Levkin spoke about how “all this activity,” from working with Azov, organizing Asgardsrei and playing in M8l8th, is part of his ideological mission. 

Lyrics from M8l8th’s albums, almost all of which are available for purchase both on Amazon and/or on the Apple iTunes Store, leave no doubt about that mission. Many M8l8th songs are also available on YouTube, where apparent fans from around the globe leave messages of support in the comments.

One M8l8th song available for purchase on both Amazon and Apple’s iTunes Store, “The Echo of Future War,” features lyrics referencing “the dirty blood of kikes” (“в грязной крови жидов” —  жид, zhid, is an antisemitic slur in Russian) and fighting until “the damned Jew has croaked” (“подох проклятый еврей”). 

A M8l8th song available on Amazon featuring lyrics referencing “the dirty blood of kikes” (“в грязной крови жидов” — жид, zhid, is an antisemitic slur in Russian) and fighting until “the damned Jew has croaked” (“подох проклятый еврей”)

Another M8l8th song, available for purchase on Apple’s iTunes Store, takes lyrics directly from the Horst Wessel Song, the anthem of the Nazi party from 1930 to 1945, including the line “millions look upon the swastika full of hope.”

Albums from neo-Nazi band M8l8th on sale on Apple iTunes Store.

Another song, available from Apple’s iTunes Store, features lyrics like “preachers of Kabbalah, offspring thereof/labour in Death Camps, burn in furnace fire.” Another song is called “Buchenwald,” a clear reference to the Nazi concentration camp; it’s available for purchase on both Amazon and the Apple iTunes Store.

“To sing about war, one has to fight,” Levkin told neo-Nazi Golden Dawn’s magazine. “To sing about murder, one has to kill.”

Quest for Ukrainian citizenship

But Levkin and other Russian far-right, neo-Nazi figures in Ukraine have a common, key goal: gaining Ukrainian citizenship. The Azov movement has long been protesting and pushing for Ukraine’s laws to be changed to make it easier to grant citizenship to foreigners who came to Ukraine to defend against Russian and Russian-led forces in the country’s east. It is, of course, true that a minority of foreigners who came to fight for Ukraine in 2014-15 were far-right extremists or neo-Nazis; nonetheless, it has been Azov that has pushed the citizenship issue most publicly and directly.

Many of these foreign extremists, like Levkin, were neo-Nazis who came and signed up to fight in far-right forces like the Azov Battalion, and have stayed in Ukraine since. Figures like Levkin and others from Russia, they argue, can’t return home because of being “wanted for political reasons,” in Levkin’s words. Ukrainian citizenship would do more than just make it easier for Russian ‘exile’ neo-Nazis to stay in Ukraine — it would also grant them visa-free access to the European Union for visits of up to 90 days. 

Alexey Levkin (right, in brown shirt) marching in an Azov movement protest on June 4, 2019, urging Ukrainian president Zelenskyy to pass a law to make it easier to grant citizenship to foreign fighters in Ukraine, like Levkin himself.

Azov’s efforts have appeared, at least initially, to have yielded fruit: Ukraine’s parliament in June passed a law that would streamline the process of granting citizenship to foreigners who came to fight on Ukraine’s side. But President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has yet to sign the bill to officially make it law, and there is no guarantee that he will do so. 

Another option available to Levkin and others, in theory, is being granted Ukrainian citizenship by a presidential decree. The most prominent example, Belarusian-Russian neo-Nazi Sergei Korotkikh, was controversially given Ukrainian citizenship by then-president Petro Poroshenko in December 2014. 

More recently, however, a friend of Levkin and other Russian far-right figures in Ukraine was granted the gift of Ukrainian citizenship from Zelenskyy: Nikita Makeev.

Makeev, as Bellingcat wrote in an investigation last year, is a former Azov fighter and Russian citizen who came to Ukraine in 2014; he has been trying to obtain Ukrainian citizenship for years. Makeev has also reportedly been a close associate of National Corps Deputy Head Nazarii Kravchenko, having been seen with him at a number of rallies and events. 

Makeev is also close to Levkin, and is part of the “Russian Center,” an organization of Russian far-right ‘exiles’ in Ukraine whose leadership and activities seem to overlap with Wotanjugend. 

A photo (left to right) of Nikita Makeev, Alexei Levkin and Ivan Mikheev holding the flag of the “Russian Center,” an organization of Russian far-right ‘exiles’ based in Ukraine

Russian Center has also made efforts to cooperate and form relationships with international far-right groups. A conference in Ukraine in April 2019 featured representatives from far-right, neo-Nazi movements in Hungary, Poland, the Czech Republic and Serbia; they discussed, among other topics, the need to create cross-border “groups of fighters who want to support their European comrades.” Also there was Ukrainian neo-Nazi group Karpatska Sich, who in August 2019 urged its members to buy the Ukrainian-language translation of the Christchurch shooter’s manifesto. Moreover, In August 2019 a representative from Russian Center attended a far-right conference in the Czech Republic, meeting with representatives of far-right, neo-Nazi groups from the Czech Republic, Germany, Poland, Bulgaria, Hungary and Poland. 

On July 18, 2019, Zelenskyy signed a decree granting Ukrainian citizenship to “nine…foreigners who defended our state,” one of whom was Makeev.

Levkin (centre, with beard) in an undated photo.  Over Levkin’s left shoulder is Nikita Makeev, a Russian Azov veteran granted Ukrainian citizenship by President Volodymyr Zelenskyy in July 2019. The third man from the left, with his hand on Makeev’s shoulder, is Ukrainian now-former MP Oleh Petrenko.

A week later, with his Ukrainian citizenship in proverbial tow, Makeev jumped back in the headlines. Makeev was part of a group of individuals who attacked the motorcade of former president Petro Poroshenko. While others in the group allegedly pepper-sprayed and kicked Poroshenko’s bodyguards, Makeev jumped onto the hood of the former president’s car. He later explained his actions by claiming he wanted to give Poroshenko a bulletproof vest which had been pierced by bullets, and thus “avenge [Poroshenko] for five years of humiliation.” Makeev’s act is reportedly under investigation as “hooliganism” by Ukrainian law enforcement. 

Levkin has made it clear that he would like to become a Ukrainian citizen, and his bid has received public support from the Azov movement . He was in attendance at Azov’s June 2019 protest in front of the Presidential Administration of Ukraine demanding changes in the citizenship law, and has given interviews in the past on the need to grant Ukrainian citizenship to foreign fighters like him. 

When asked in a January 2019 interview if M8l8th concerts might eventually take place outside of Ukraine — in other words, if he was able to receive Ukrainian citizenship and thus travel visa-free to the European Union — Levkin struck a confident tone. 

“I think that in time [concerts outside of Ukraine] will happen,” said Levkin. “We all currently await the passage of the law granting citizenship to foreign volunteers. It all depends on that.”

But Levkin made it clear that, in the meantime, he is happy to use Kyiv as a meeting point for far-right extremists from Europe and beyond. 

“If we can’t make it there, they can easily come here and enjoy glorious Kyiv,” said Levkin, “a gathering point for the right of all sorts.”

The post The “Hardcore” Russian Neo-Nazi Group That Calls Ukraine Home appeared first on bellingcat.

Lega Nord’s Bedfellows: Russians Offering Illicit Funding to Italian Far-Right Party Identified

In a previous joint investigation with BuzzFeed News and the Insider, Bellingcat disclosed the inordinately frequent travel of two Italian politicians from the close circle of the head of Italy’s far-right party Lega Nord, and self-styled “Italian Trump” Matteo Salvini. As previously reported by Italian media and BuzzFeed, one of the frequent travelers and advisers to Italy’s deputy prime minister  – Gianluca Savoini – took part in a meeting in Moscow last October with three so-far unidentified Russian speakers.

At that meeting, which took place at the Metropol hotel and was surreptitiously recorded (likely by one of the participants) – Savoini and his Russian counterparts discussed an illicit scheme to secure funding for Italy’s far-right party in the upcoming European parliament elections. The funding – in the millions of Euro – was to be funneled via artificially under-priced Russian oil export transactions, allowing room for a “value added” allocation to a sham broker, which was to be secretly channeled to Lega Nord.

During the meeting, the audio recording of which was obtained by BuzzFeed, Savoini can be heard repeatedly pledging political support to Russia in the context of the “common interests” between the Kremlin and Europe’s extreme right.

The disclosure of the meeting and its purported goals have rocked Italian politics, and prosecutors in Milan are investigating the proposed deal. Salvini himself did not attend the Metropol meeting, but was in Moscow at the time. He has consistently refused to answer questions about whether he knew the meeting was taking place or was aware of the proposed oil deal.

Three Russian male voices can be heard in the recording published by BuzzFeed. During their deliberations on how best to structure the funding scheme, they refer to leading Russian political figures with whom the project needs to be coordinated – including Vladimir Pligin and the “deputy prime minister”, arguably referring to Dmitry Kozak. The three men’s identities have, however, remained unknown until this investigation.

A joint investigation by Bellingcat, BuzzFeed News, and the Insider (Russia) has been able to identify two of the three Russian voices heard on the recording.

Who are the two men?

Ilya Yakunin, screen-grab from a television interview (2017)

These two men identified as part of the Metropol conversation are Andrey Yuryevich Kharchenko and Ilya Andreevich Yakunin. In the recording they can be heard (switching back and forth between English and Russian) presenting the funding scheme to their Italian guests, and referring to Russian politicians and government officials who need to approve the plan before it can be put into action.

Andrey Kharchenko, passport photograph

Kharchenko is directly linked to Russian far-right ideologist Aleksandr Dugin, while Yakunin – a former state company functionary with an investment background – is linked to Vladimir Pligin, a high-profile politician from the ruling “United Russia” party.

Alexander Dugin has long strategized to create a network of Kremlin-loyal politicians from among the European extreme right, and has touted his good contacts with Italy’s Lega Nord. He has been supported – and largely funded – by Russian oligarch Konstantin Malofeev, who is on the EU sanctions list over his involvement in funding the initial stage of Russia’s invasion into Ukraine.

Vladimir Pligin played a major role in one of Putin’s most hostile foreign policy moves: drafting a law in the country’s parliament certifying the 2014 annexation of Crimea. Neither Dugin nor Pligin attended the October 18 Metropol meeting, but both were mentioned on the recording. A third Russian voice, as yet unidentified, declared that they needed Pligin’s “green light” before moving forward with the negotiations. The day before the meeting, Dugin was photographed meeting with Savoini, while Salvini reportedly met with the Russian deputy prime minister Dmitry Kozak at Pligin’s office. Kozak is also referred to in the recording as someone needed to bless the funding scheme, although he is not directly mentioned by name.

Bellingcat, BuzzFeed News and the Insider also analyzed travel and company records, online and social media activity, as well as information contained in other databases, to piece together a profile of Yakunin and Kharchenko along with their links to Dugin and Pligin.

We established that Yakunin’s connection to Pligin long predates the Metropol meeting. In 2002, Yakunin took up a management position at the Agency of Direct Investments, a firm which focuses on major industries including oil and gas. The firm was controlled by a company that counts Pligin as one of its six founders and shareholders, records discovered by Bellingcat show. An employee at the Agency told BuzzFeed News that Yakunin no longer works at the company.

A long-serving member of Putin’s United Russia party, Pligin is also a former senior member of parliament. His work on legislation to annex Crimea landed him on a European Union sanctions list. He co-founded a law firm with deputy prime minister Kozak, a power broker — known as the “Cheshire Cat” because of his smile — who served as Putin’s chief of staff when he first became president, and whom the US recently put on its sanctions list as a “member of the Russian leadership’s inner circle.” Pligin was also a student of Anatoly Sobchak, the former mayor of St. Petersburg known for kickstarting Putin’s political career.

The Metropol Hotel group’s ties to Dugin come from Kharchenko, who has been quoted in Russian media as an employee of Dugin’s political entity, the International Eurasian Movement.

But other details raise questions about what, exactly, Kharchenko does for a living. His name is nowhere to be found on the organisation’s website, and a senior officer at the International Eurasian Union’s headquarters contacted by the Insider had not heard of him. Adding to the mystique around Kharchenko, according to two sources with access to Russian tax databases, his tax records for the past five years are empty, showing no official income. At the same time, we have established that “Andrey Kharchenko” is an authentic identity and not a cover name. Born in Azerbaijan in March 1980, he became a Russian citizen 15 years later, and appears to be a disciple of Dugin, judging by the fact that the latter oversaw Kharchenko’s PhD in philosophy. Kharchenko’s 137-page dissertation focuses on the destructive potential of global population mobility, and the negative moral connotations of taking selfies.

Asked in a brief phone interview with the Insider last month why there was so little information about him online, Kharchenko said that he often published his writings using a pseudonym, but declined to say what it was.

Kharchenko has traveled with Dugin on a number of foreign trips, including a November 2016 visit to Crimea to host a Turkish delegation which included a self-styled adviser to President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. He also traveled with Dugin to Ankara earlier that same month, where they – accompanied by a former deputy-chair of Russia’s parliament’s foreign affairs committee with links to Konstantin Malofeev and to an anti-liberal think-tank reporting to the Russian president – met with a mix of mainstream and fringe Turkish politicians, allegedly to kick-start then ailing Russian-Turkish relations.

Oleg Lebedev, second from left, is chair of the civic council at RISS, a Kremlin think-tank. Posing with Dugin (5 from left) and Konstantin Malofeev (second from right).

Notably, on that trip, Kharchenko used a service passport, a document only made available to government or state employees, or to executives of state-owned companies. Given his absence of recent tax records, it was not possible to established what state-linked entity had sponsored his special passport.

Kharchenko, Dugan and Lebedev during their trip to Ankara, November 2016

When Dugin met with Savoini the day before the Metropol meeting, an Italian journalist posted a photograph on Twitter showing them standing with another, unidentified man. Based on a juxtaposition of relative body measurements — such as the length of his arms relative to his height, as well as his posture and hair shape — to other photos of Kharchenko standing next to Dugin, it is likely that this is indeed Kharchenko. However, because of the lack of specific features in the tweeted image, for example his ears aren’t properly visible, it is not possible to provide a definitive forensic match.

Savoini, presidente Lombardia-Russia- nel giorno della visita di #Salvini a #Mosca – con Aleksandr #Dugin, studioso vicino movimenti sovranisti europei. Non si parlava di politica, dicono, ma di organizzare una “mostra di artisti eurasiatici” in Italia. pic.twitter.com/wX8Z9rHjnD

— Marta Allevato (@MartaAllevato) October 17, 2018

While much of Kharchenko’s background remains a mystery, a lot more can be pieced together about Yakunin. A LinkedIn profile claiming to belong to Yakunin suggests that he attended the prestigious Moscow State Institute of International Relations. This university is run by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and is well-known for educating the country’s top diplomats and intelligence officers.

Yakunin has spent much of his career working for firms with strong links to the Russian state. According to one news report, he has worked closely with some of Russia’s biggest companies, including Gazprom and Russian Railways. In 2016, he was appointed deputy director general of the state-owned North Caucasus Development Corporation, a firm created to attract investments and implement major infrastructure projects in the region. It was founded in 2010 by Vnesheconombank, a state-funded development bank under US Treasury sanctions. Two years ago the bank transferred control of the corporation directly to the Russian state.

An employee at the North Caucasus Development Corporation told BuzzFeed News that Yakunin no longer worked there.

More recently, Yakunin has referred to himself as the deputy director general of a new company called the Eurasian Trade and Logistics Centre. Records show that the company was created in February 2018. Its director, Vladimir Georgievich Sobinsky, is a member of the United Russia party and an influential politician in Karelia, a region in the country’s northwest.

One of the Centre’s shareholders is a company controlled by the Russian conglomerate Sistema, a multi-billion-dollar investment company listed on the London Stock Exchange and run by the billionaire Vladimir Yevtushenkov. Reached on the phone on Monday, a spokesperson at the Centre told BuzzFeed News that Yakunin doesn’t work there, and hung up. Sistema did not respond to requests for comment.

How we identified the two men

The identities of Yakunin and Kharchenko were established through an iterative process of seeking out people having the first names matching those heard on the recordings (“Ilya”, “Andrey” and “Yury”), among hundreds of possible candidates within the business and personal circles of the people name-checked during the meeting. Then, the investigative team sought out audio samples from the voices of the short-listed candidates in order to compare their voices to the samples from the leaked recording of the Metropol hotel meeting.

Ilya Yakunin was short-listed as a former employee of a Pligin-owned company and a recent government investment-agency executive, and was also mentioned – with no context – in an earlier Espresso story about the Metropol hotel meeting. We found a sample of his voice in an interview he gave to a regional Russian television channel in December 2017.

Andrey Kharchenko – who holds an obscure yet nominally important position of “Near-East director” of Dugin’s International Eurasian Union – had no video presence in open sources. A sample of his voice was captured by the Insider during a telephone call last week.

An analysis by Bellingcat comparing voice intonation, speech mannerisms, and fundamental vocal frequencies has determined with a high degree of confidence that Kharchenko’s and Yakunin’s voices match two of the men on the Metropol tape.

The recordings of Yakunin’s voice has been sent to specialists at the National Center for Media Forensics at the University of Colorado Denver for a full forensic analysis. (The audio quality of Kharchenko’s voice on the Metropol tape is not high enough for a forensic-level analysis)

We approached both Yakunin and Kharchenko with a list of detailed questions about the Metropol hotel meeting. They did not respond by press time.

We also contacted Vladimir Pligin and inquired about the context in which his name was invoked at the meeting, and introduced him to the names identified by us as hosting the meeting and dropping his name. He said that he has no connection to such people, thus directly contradicting the records showing Yakunin managed a company under his joint control.

Why do these names matter?

Italian prosecutors have announced that they are looking into whether Savoini and the two other Italians at the meeting had engaged in “international corruption.” In this context, the identity of the individuals who – together with Savoini – plotted the illicit scheme for diverting Russian export proceeds to a political party is highly relevant. Any criminal investigation will seek to identify the ultimate funding source, and whether a state or a private group was seeking to sponsor a party – and what its interests and expectations would have been.

Given that the identified persons attending the meeting were not business people with their own agency, or wealthy individuals sacrificing their own funds for a like-minded political cause, questions arise as to who was expected to pick up the tab. The two men appear equally linked to the Russian state, as well as to wealthy Russian oligarchs, some of them under EU sanctions.

These revelations have come at the same time that the Italian government has spun into crisis and collapsed, after Salvini pulled the plug on his coalition with the populist Five Star Movement. Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte said he would step down, and during his resignation speech lambasted Salvini over his refusal to address parliament about the Metropol revelations or share any information about it with Conte’s office. Salvini has tried to force a snap election, but that looks to have failed. The Five Star Movement is now on the brink of forming a new government with the centre-left Democratic Party, a move which would mean Salvini would lose his job as deputy prime minister and interior minister.

Salvini has refused to answer an avalanche of questions from MPs and reporters about what he knows about the meeting. He and Savoini did not respond to requests for comment for this article.

Aside from Savoini, two other Italian men attended the Metropol meeting. Both men — an international lawyer called Gianluca Meranda and Francesco Vannucci, a consultant and banking expert — have come forward since the recording was exposed. They both deny wrongdoing and say a deal was never completed.

Only one man from that meeting remains unidentified: A third Russian man, referred to as “Yuri.”

The post Lega Nord’s Bedfellows: Russians Offering Illicit Funding to Italian Far-Right Party Identified appeared first on bellingcat.

Israel’s one-state reality is sowing chaos in American politics

Until U.S. lawmakers and major Jewish organizations adjust to the current one-state reality, the acrimony that has marked the last several years under Netanyahu and Trump will only intensify.

A mural depicting President Donald Trump kissing an Israeli army watchtower is seen on the separation barrier in the West Bank city of Bethlehem, August 4, 2017. (Flash90)

A mural depicting President Donald Trump kissing an Israeli army watchtower is seen on the separation barrier in the West Bank city of Bethlehem, August 4, 2017. (Flash90)

For decades, the two-state solution has been the central pillar of the bipartisan pro-Israel consensus in Washington. Since the signing of the Oslo Accords, every single U.S. administration has been committed, at least nominally, to the establishment of a Palestinian state alongside Israel.

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Yet the expiration of the two-state paradigm under Prime Minister Netanyahu and the lack of a clear alternative to take its place has kicked that pillar away, disordering the politics of Israel-Palestine in the United States. Until American decision-makers adjust to the current one-state reality, the acrimony, chaos, and division that have marked the past several years will only intensify.

Without the pretext of a peace process, the Trump administration is pursuing a post-two-state agenda rife with draconian measures taken against key Palestinian institutions, from closing the PLO office in Washington to slashing funding to UNRWA. Today, the administration’s Middle East policy is being set by right-wing, pro-settlement officials, and Trump’s “Deal of the Century,” if it is ever released, is sure to be a gift to the Israeli territorial-maximalist right and will not likely include a Palestinian state. These shifts dovetail perfectly with Israel’s annexationist policies on the ground in the occupied territories.

U.S. politicians and the major Jewish-led organizations that deal with Israel-Palestine have so far failed to adjust in response. Almost all remain committed to a two-state solution, despite the clear intentions of both the Trump and Netanyahu administrations to bury it once and for all. And so, in the gap between their stated positions and the reality on the ground, confusion, hedging, and half-measures pervade.

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Liberal Zionist organizations like J Street and the New Israel Fund are attempting the difficult, ineffectual dance of outwardly opposing the BDS movement while simultaneously opposing measures that seek to outlaw boycotts of Israel. AIPAC stalwarts in Congress have attempted to bolster support for the two-state solution only to be rebuked by Israeli MKs, including several high-ranking members of Netanyahu’s Likud party, who called a Palestinian state “far more dangerous” than BDS.

The result has been the zombification of the bipartisan pro-Israel consensus — an undead consensus lumbering the halls of Congress that not only no longer corresponds to the political reality in Israel-Palestine, but also no longer reflects what many ordinary American voters actually believe. Indeed, while members of Congress can still be counted on to vote overwhelmingly in Israel’s favor across partisan lines, among the broader public, bipartisan support for Israel has collapsed.

A widely publicized 2018 Pew Survey found that only 27 percent of Democrats sympathize more with Israel than with the Palestinians, while 79 percent of Republicans sympathize more with Israel. Among young people, support for Israel is even lower. A 2018 Economist/YouGov poll found that just one-quarter of respondents ages 18-29 consider Israel an ally.

Members of Jewish-American anti-occupation group IfNotNow protest Trump's decision to move the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem, Washington D.C., May 14, 2018. (Gili Getz)

Members of Jewish-American anti-occupation group IfNotNow protest Trump’s decision to move the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem, Washington D.C., May 14, 2018. (Gili Getz)

Furthermore, recent polling suggests that on the actual issues of BDS and the one- and two-state solutions, U.S. politicians are even more out of step with the public than typically acknowledged. A 2018 University of Maryland poll found that there is no majority support for a two-state solution among Americans. The poll also reported that, “If the two-state solution ceased to be possible, 64 percent of Americans would choose the democracy of Israel, even if that meant that Israel would cease to be a politically Jewish state, over the Jewishness of Israel, if the latter meant Palestinians would not be fully equal.” And while few Americans have specifically heard of the BDS movement, 40 percent of Americans — and a majority of Democrats — support sanctions on Israel if it continues settlement expansion.

An ordinary country

When such a disjuncture exists between elected representatives and the people they represent, a realignment is in order — and realignments can often be messy, acrimonious affairs. The redrawing of a political terrain requires polarization, which is precisely what is happening right now between Democrats and Republicans, and among Democrats themselves.

We have already begun to see how a coalition of evangelical Christian Zionists and right-wing, Orthodox Jews has turned the GOP into the party of a single undemocratic Jewish state between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea. The Democrats, in contrast, and particularly the party leadership, have been exceptionally resistant to change, holding fast to the dying two-state paradigm.

Yet Democrats have significant room to realign their views with reality on the ground, and there is little to be gained from clinging to an obsolete position that has lost popular support. The sole supporters of BDS in Congress, Reps. Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib, have garnered attention not merely because Trump has targeted them, but because a sizable portion of Democrats sympathize with, if not share, their views.

Democratic Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib. (Stephanie Kenner/Shutterstock)

Democratic Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib. (Stephanie Kenner/Shutterstock)

Moving Democratic politicians into alignment with their base will likely require bitter primary challenges and internecine fights of the sorts that we have already seen. It is worth noting that many of the party’s leaders — Nancy Pelosi, Steny Hoyer, and others — are facing primary opponents whose platforms include much more left-wing positions on Israel-Palestine.

Realignments, of course, do not happen overnight. In the case of South Africa, three decades elapsed between the first major calls to boycott the apartheid regime and Congress’s passage of the Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act of 1986 — over President Ronald Reagan’s veto.

In the case of Israel-Palestine, realignment could take just as long, if not longer. The Israeli government long ago adjusted its public relations strategy for the post-two-state reality, spending vast sums of money to oppose the BDS movement, despite its relative marginality, and combat what is often called “delegitimization” of Israel. Today, the Israeli hasbara apparatus’s most active front is the attempted redefinition of anti-Zionism as anti-Semitism, with the goal of rendering any opposition to the occupation, Zionism – or even simply Israeli policies themselves — beyond the pale of mainstream acceptability.

What this means is that the discord that has characterized the past several months of U.S. politics, from Israel’s denial of entry to Reps. Omar and Tlaib to Trump’s accusation of “disloyalty” against the vast majority of American Jews, will not only continue for the foreseeable future — it will probably get worse.

The one-staters in the Republican Party, in concert with the right-wing Israeli government, will continue to wield false accusations of anti-Semitism against critics of Israeli policy while strengthening alliances with actually anti-Semitic Christian Zionists in the United States and the far-right abroad. American Jews, threatened by rising white nationalist violence at home, will have to confront the painful reality that Israel, far from being a refuge or “light unto the nations,” is something much more ordinary — a violent, undemocratic state.

The post Israel’s one-state reality is sowing chaos in American politics appeared first on +972 Magazine.