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from MacroScope:

All eyes on Putin

Russia's President Vladimir Putin talks to reporters during a meeting in Brasilia

Russian President Vladimir Putin will meet his top security officials prior to visiting annexed Crimea on Thursday with members of his government.

One way or another, with Ukrainian government forces encircling the main pro-Russian rebel stronghold of Donetsk, matters are coming to a head. Putin must decide whether to up his support for the separatists in east Ukraine or back off.

Tens of thousands of Russian troops remain camped near the Ukraine border and a Russian convoy of trucks carrying tonnes of humanitarian aid is heading for  eastern Ukraine. Kiev says it would not allow the vehicles to cross into its territory and it and Western governments warned Moscow against any attempt to turn the operation into a military intervention by stealth in a region facing a humanitarian crisis after four months of warfare.

Uneasy allies the United States and Iran have both endorsed Iraq's new prime minister-designate, Haider al-Abadi, as he called on political leaders to end feuding that has helped allow Sunni militants seize a third of the country. To make the odd couple an odder triumvirate, Saudi Arabia also gave him its backing. Such is the tangled web of Middle Eastern politics.

from MacroScope:

Moment of truth in Ukraine

A Ukrainian serviceman guards a checkpoint near Donetsk

Financial markets perked up on Monday after Russia called off military exercises near the Ukraine border but was the confidence well founded?

NATO’s chief told Reuters there was a "high probability" Russia could launch an invasion of Ukraine where the government said it was in the "final stages" of recapturing Donetsk, the main city held by pro-Russian rebels, a battle that could be a decisive turning point in the biggest confrontation between Russia and the West since the Cold War.

from The Great Debate:

Putin’s already paying dearly for Ukraine – and looks willing to sacrifice much more

Russia's President Vladimir Putin chairs a government meeting at the Novo-Ogaryovo state residence outside Moscow

Russian President Vladimir Putin has adopted a “go it alone” approach throughout the Ukraine crisis and regularly describes his country as “independent” and nonaligned. But Moscow is not as isolated as Putin makes out. The fact that he cannot see this reality -- or chooses to ignore it -- has produced a series of decisions that has seriously undermined Russia’s global role.

For the past two decades, Moscow has viewed its foray into global institutions as a major success. It has increasingly integrated into the global economy.  Those achievements, however, now present Putin with a major dilemma.

from The Great Debate:

Putin’s anti-American rhetoric now persuades his harshest critics

People I know in Russia, members of the intelligentsia and professionals who have long been critical of President Vladimir Putin’s anti-Western stance, have suddenly turned into America-bashers. Many have been swept away by Putin’s arguments that the United States, not the Kremlin, is destabilizing Ukraine.

Since the current crisis broke in Ukraine over its efforts to side with the European Union rather than Russia, Putin has been at war with the United States. He seems intent on proving that a U.S.-centric world order is over and that Europe should decide on its own what its relations with Russia will be.

from Stories I’d like to see:

The Russian sanctions information gap

Emergencies Ministry member walks at the site of a Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777 plane crash near the settlement of Grabovo in the Donetsk region

There are so many gaps in the reporting about the effort to use economic sanctions against Russia to get President Vladimir Putin to pull back support for the Ukraine separatists that it makes sense to devote my whole column this week to listing them.

Of course, it’s a lot easier to identify the gaps than to do the reporting to fill them. Still, many are so obvious that it suggests that for all the resources spent on getting great video of the Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 crash site, interviews with the victims’ families and reports from the war front in eastern Ukraine -- all important stories -- there is more heat than light being produced when it comes to the most critical, long-term question related to the Ukrainian conflict: If economic sanctions are the global economy’s modern substitute for using military force in repelling aggression, how is that playing out in the first test of that strategy against a global economic player like Russia?

from John Lloyd:

Meet Vladimir Putin’s homophobic, vitriolic, charismatic master of propaganda

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Russian President Vladimir Putin’s popularity has soared at home in the wake of his actions in Ukraine – and the masterful spin his intervention has been given.

The joy that greeted Putin’s seizure of Crimea from Ukraine in March was due, at least in part, to a propaganda system less complete but more virulent than its Soviet predecessor.

from MacroScope:

A dissenting voice

A train carrying the remains of the victims of Malaysia Airlines MH17 arrives in Kharkiv

Interesting intervention from former Russian finance minister Alexei Kudrin late yesterday who warned that Russia risked isolation and having its efforts to modernize derailed.

That sort of internal criticism is rare but Kudrin has done so before without censure which suggests Vladimir Putin is – or has been - willing to hear it. Kudrin added that Moscow should not intervene militarily in eastern Ukraine.

from The Great Debate:

Sanctions finally find Russia’s Achilles heel

Russia's President Vladimir Putin gestures as he chairs a government meeting at the Novo-Ogaryovo state residence outside Moscow

Russian President Vladimir Putin and President Barack Obama were reportedly engaged in a heated telephone conversation last Thursday when Putin noted in passing that an aircraft had gone down in Ukraine. The tragic crash of the Malaysian airliner in rebel-held eastern Ukraine continues to dominate the headlines, but it is important to remember what agitated Putin and prompted the phone call in the first place -- sanctions.

Sanctions against Russia have been the centerpiece of the U.S. response to Putin’s interference in Ukraine. While they primarily have been directed against prominent friends of Putin and their businesses, the underlying target has been a weak Russian economy.  The sanctions have definitely found Russia’s Achilles’ heel, and with harsher sanctions looming in the aftermath of flight MA17, Putin is finding it increasingly difficult to craft an effective reply.

from MacroScope:

EU on Russia sanctions: slowly, slowly

Ukraine's President Poroshenko and Dutch ambassador to Ukraine Klompenhouwer commemorate victims of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17 outside the Dutch embassy in Kiev

EU foreign ministers meet to decide how precisely to deploy sanctions agreed 10 days ago to hit Russian companies that help destabilise Ukraine and to block new loans to Russia through two multilateral lenders.

The EU foreign ministers are tasked with preparing a first list of people and entities from Russia that would be targeted. The number of individuals and companies to be penalized is up for grabs so there is scope to adopt a tougher posture.

from Ian Bremmer:

What MH17 means for Russia-Ukraine

Armed pro-Russian separatist stands on part of the wreckage of the Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777 plane after it crashed near the settlement of Grabovo in the Donetsk region

MH17 is an alarming escalation of the Ukraine conflict.

In the wake of a surface-to-air missile taking down a Malaysian airliner over Eastern Ukraine, everyone is pointing fingers. Kiev blames the pro-Russian “terrorists,” with Moscow responsible for providing them with intelligence and weapons. The separatists deny involvement and accuse Kiev of planning the attack, citing the Ukrainian military’s accidental shooting of a Siberian Airlines flight in 2001. Moscow blames the Ukrainian government for pushing the rebels into this violent situation -- even if Russian President Vladimir Putin stopped short of pinning the airliner attack on Kiev. Despite the confusion, it’s clear what MH17 means: dramatic escalation and an even more combustible conflict.

Some analysts and pundits are viewing the downed flight as an opportunity to force Putin into tempering his support for the separatists. While clearer proof of pro-Russian separatist guilt does, in principle, provide the Russians with a reason to do so, it’s highly unlikely that Russia will seize the chance. The underlying fissures have not gone away -- in fact, MH17 makes them even more pronounced.

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