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‘You Didn’t See Us Here,’ Officer Admonishes, as Moscow Keeps Military Options in Ukraine

As Ukrainians elect a parliament this weekend, new evidence pops up of Russia’s military role in their country: Western journalists this week found destroyed Russian tanks in Donetsk—and very live (if somewhat drunk) Russian soldiers happy to socialize at one of the last cafés still open in Lugansk.

“You didn’t see us here,” a uniformed officer named Slava tells the reporters as they leave, a bottle of vodka under his arm. And indeed the Russian army regulars in Lugansk operate in the background, leaving locals or imported Russian volunteers to the more visible roles, according to journalists Courtney Weaver and Max Seddon.

The proof of Russia’s decisive tanks-and-infantry offensive into Ukraine in August already is deep: Russian troops captured by Ukraine in Donetsk province; the soldiers killed in battle and secretively buried back home in Pskov and other Russian towns; the videos shot by (Russian) residents of Russian border towns of artillery rockets volleyed into Ukraine; the Russian soldiers’ stories and photos of their Ukraine battles, posted on Russian social media sites.

Still, the Russian government denies these facts (with the acceptance of some commentators in the West), so it’s relevant that new layers of evidence keep trickling out. Yesterday, Reuters reported new forensic discoveries at the site of August’s decisive battle, near the villages of Horbatenko and Ilovaisk.  It photographed burned-out tanks rusting in the fields, and had them analyzed by multiple armaments experts who identified a couple of them as variants of the T-72 model used only by Russia’s army and never exported to Ukraine.

Russian troops removed the usual identifying marks from the tanks that invaded and replaced them with identical white circles painted on their turrets, marks that remained visible on one destroyed armored vehicle out on the battlefield, write Reuters reporters Maria Tsvetkova and Aleksandar Vasovic. The reporters also describe finding 124 packs of daily food rations used only by the Russian army, and leftover bottles of water manufactured in Ivanovo, the home province of the 98th Guards Airborne Division, which had joined the battle.

At the Weeping Willow café in Lugansk, a Russian soldier from Voronezh named Maxim, with his five buddies, generously invited reporters Courtney Weaver (a New Yorker based in Moscow for the Financial Times) and Max Seddon (reporting for Buzzfeed) to join them for vodka. Maxim is a funny guy. “They gave us an order: ‘Who wants to go volunteer?’” he tells the journalists. The troops’ mission is “training the local population,” Maxim says.

The soldiers, plus Russian volunteer fighters whom Weaver meets in a coffee shop, are reminders that Russia is keeping its war-making options wide open in Ukraine—including possible offensives in the southeast, as announced yesterday by Donetsk rebel leader Aleksander Zakharchenko, or across Ukraine’s south, to seize a land route to Crimea.

The Russian government is keeping those war options open largely by suppressing news within Russia of the presence of its troops in Ukraine. Police in the southern district of Stavropol have arrested Lyudmila Bogatenkova, the chairperson of a local Soldiers’ Mothers Committee, the newspaper Novaya Gazeta reported this week. Bogatenkova, 73 and diabetic, uncovered and publicized the deaths in August of nine soldiers from the Chechnya-based 18th Motorized Rifle Brigade, saying they had been killed in Ukraine. Russian news accounts have quoted her as saying hundreds of troops from southern Russia had been killed or wounded. Russian news media cited officials as saying she had been arraigned for fraud. (The Soldiers’ Mothers’ Committee of St. Petersburg was forced to register as a “foreign agent” after it also reported more than 100 Russian troops from that region killed in Ukraine.)

James Rupert is an editor at the Atlantic Council.

Ankara’s Handling of Syrian War Has Revived Its Own Kurdish Conflict

Turkey’s promise Monday to let Iraqi Kurdish guerrillas cross its border to defend the Syrian Kurdish town of Kobani against the Islamist army of ISIS provides a rare sign of hope for saving Turkey’s moribund peace process with its own Kurds. Turkey’s refusal until now to facilitate help for the Syrian Kurds’ fight has ignited riots and communal violence involving Kurds across much of Turkey.

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Russia Faces Deadline in Twelve Weeks to Pay Biggest-Ever Arbitration Penalty

Just eighty-seven days before Russia is mandated to pay a $50 billion penalty to the former owners of the Yukos oil company, there is no public sign yet of a settlement in the dispute, raising the chances that courts in Europe and the US will be asked early next year to authorize the seizures of Russian state-owned airliners, ships, real estate or other commercial property. That step would only further embitter the relations between Russia and the West that have hardened this year over Russia’s invasions of Ukraine.

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An Impressive Nordic Defense Initiative Should Invite the Three Baltic Nations to Join

As Russia’s attacks on Ukraine revive concerns about the security of its northwestern neighbors as well, last month’s NATO summit conference took two noteworthy steps, among others, to address the Russian danger. For one, the allies authorized a new quick-response force to reassure the Baltic States—Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania—of the alliance’s ability to protect them.

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Poroshenko's Party Leads; Yatsenyuk Improves Chance of Remaining Prime Minister

On Sunday, Ukrainians will elect their first parliament since the Maidan revolution and the Russian invasions of Crimea and Donbas. Kyiv-based political analyst Brian Mefford, now a nonresident senior fellow of the Atlantic Council, analyzes Ukrainian politics and elections on his website’s blog. Mefford’s analysis will feature on New Atlanticist and the Atlantic Council’s UkraineAlert newsletter, beginning with his reading this week of the prospects for Sunday’s vote and Ukraine’s next government.

Mefford’s key observations this week are these:

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Kyiv Says It Fires 39 Officials as Voters Show Frustration Over Continued Corruption

Eight months after Ukrainians forced the ouster of President Viktor Yanukovych, they will elect a parliament amid rising public anger over the persistence of government corruption under the still-new regime of President Petro Poroshenko. Public discussion about how many new leaders are the same as the old crowd has fueled the wave of attacks in recent weeks in which groups of men have accosted politicians on the street, accused them of graft, and heaved them into street-side trash dumpsters.

Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk’s office said it decided yesterday to dismiss thirty-nine officials, including “heads of central executive bodies” and “deputy ministers” after initial investigations of corruption allegations. That statement, on the Cabinet of Ministries website, also laid out a fourteen-month schedule for anti-corruption investigations of thousands of officials, starting with the top ranks.

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Buoyed by Successes in Europe’s East, Russia's Leader Turns His Gaze to Serbia and Its Neighbors

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s attack on Ukraine aims to deny that nation a European future, partly by closing the door permanently to membership in NATO or the European Union. Putin’s aims, however, are not limited to extending a Russian sphere of influence over neighbors with Russian-speaking populations. Southeast Europe also figures in Putin’s plans to upend the post-Cold War order in Europe.

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Two suicide bombing attacks in Yemen last week took the lives of at least 67 people and wounded more than 75 people, widely assumed to be the handiwork of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). This horrendous loss of life underscores the need for United States and its allies to reevaluate how we combat extremist groups and to think deeply about the connection between political legitimacy, governance, and security. Despite Washington's attention on the Islamic State, AQAP still poses a grave threat, not only for US citizens, as periodic high-alert travel warnings tell us, but more acutely for Yemenis themselves.

Al-Qaeda's ability to exploit political instability—most recently caused by the rebel Houthi movement's shocking incursion into Sana'a—and ungoverned spaces throughout Yemen should be a primary concern. This highlights major shortcomings in the US approach to addressing threats from terrorist networks seeking to harm Americans, as outlined in two new Atlantic Council publications, "Do Drone Strikes in Yemen Undermine US Security Objectives?" and "A Blueprint for a Comprehensive US Counterterrorism Strategy in Yemen." Instead of taking a short-term tactical approach that relies heavily on unmanned drone strikes, the US must develop a long-term strategy to address the underlying drivers for extremism that allow terrorist groups to thrive in Yemen.

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But Voters Doubt the Political Class, So a Technocratic Government Offers the Best Hope

Four years after Tunisia overthrew its dictator and ignited the Arab Spring revolutions in Egypt, Libya and Yemen, its 11 million people are nearing the end of their country’s formal political transition. Tunisian voters will elect a parliament on October 26 and a president on November 23, each for a five-year term.

As it approaches this finish line of sorts, Tunisia seems to be the only one of five Arab nations in transition (Syria being the fifth) that is on a clear path to the establishment of a democratic, more stable future. Still, according to Haykel Ben Mahfoudh, the election preparations include clear warning signs of public mistrust with the election process, the established political parties and the political class as a whole. This means the country’s best hopes may lie in creating a relatively technocratic government that focuses matter-of-factly on delivering better services to the citizenry, Ben Mahfoudh writes on the Atlantic Council’s MENASource blog.

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Fred Hof: US Policy Needs a Ground Game, and Here Are Two Ways to Build It

The US military has escalated air strikes against the Islamist militant ISIS fighters who have been closing in on the Syrian town of Kobani and the nearby Turkish border, in large part because the Syrian civil war is now threatening order in Turkey, a critical NATO ally.

But three weeks of US airstrikes on ISIS in Syria has not turned back the group’s advance, and even an intense bombing campaign is not going to defeat ISIS, according to the Atlantic Council’s Fred Hof, a former State Department advisor to President Obama on Syria. Halting ISIS will require a capable force on the ground as well, Hof told CBS News Tuesday. “Without a ground component … this is going to be an exercise in futility,” he said.

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