Geopolitics

Inside Russia-Ukraine Pact: It Was A Done Deal Two Weeks Ago

Putin with president of Ukraine Viktor Yanukovych
Putin with president of Ukraine Viktor Yanukovych
Andrei Kolesnikov

MOSCOW - As they met in the Green Room at the Kremlin, Vladimir Putin and Viktor Yanukovych were sitting comfortably in armchairs, sharing each other's worries about the drop in trade between their countries.

Now, the Russian and Ukranian presidents told each other, is the time for decisive action, time to open up a new free-trade zone. But while protests back in Kiev were clamoring for just such an accord between Ukraine and the European Union, the conversation in Moscow didn't include even a passing mention, no matter how remote, of the European Union.

The meeting was, as Putin said, planned ahead of time, and the partners met face-to-face to discuss the details of the two countries’ bilateral partnership. In other words, they wanted to make it clear: the European Union is not on their minds at all, they are only thinking about Ukrainian-Russian joint projects. They talked about metallurgy, shipbuilding and machinery.

As Putin and Yanukovych talked, their delegations - which seemed to include just about every cabinet minister from both countries - waited outside. Not a single Ukrainian minister approached a Russian minister to chat. That is unusual - it used to be that they always mingled because Ukrainian and Russian minister tend to have a lot of common acquaintances.

Despite the number of participants, the full-delegation discussions lasted only 15 minutes. Everything had already been decided. According to Kommersant’s sources, the private meeting between Putin and Yanukovych on Tuesday was just a formality the agreement was sealed during their meeting in Sochi earlier this month.

At that time, Yanukovych was talking about establishing a road map for reducing barriers to trade between Russia and Ukraine. There was a feeling that the only reason they weren’t saying “Customs Union” was out of superstition - so as not to jinx the process.

Ukranian demonstrators direct a hose at riot police outside Kiev City Hall on Dec. 11, 2013 — Photo: David Conway

Victory for both? Impossible

Before Putin and Yanukovych held their press conference in Sochi, the heads of Gazprom and Naftogaz were already busy amending the 2009 agreement between Russia and Ukraine on the sale of gas - the agreement that Yulia Tymoshenko is doing prison time for having negotiated. It was immediately clear that the price of gas for Ukraine would change.

It turned out that the change would be major indeed. Last year, Ukraine got a discount on gas worth $10 billion, and now the discounts in 2014 will be even bigger.

“We consider this a temporary decision,” Putin announced during the meeting Tuesday. “We also need to make a long-term agreement.” He then went on to announce that Russia would be giving Ukraine $15 billion - although that money appears to be a loan.

Applause broke out in the room after Putin’s announcement, from all of the Ukrainian delegation as well a couple of the Ukrainian journalists. “There are no strings attached,” added the Russian President. “I want to calm everyone down: We did not even discuss the issue of whether or not Ukraine would join the Customs Union."

Some might say that it would have been more important to discuss Ukraine not joining the EU.

Russia is paying a high price for Ukraine’s loyalty, and the loyalty it is buying might be temporary. When I spoke to the Ukrainian Minister of Energy, he clarified that the agreement was only good for 2014. I asked if he considered this a victory.

“Of course!” he said.

I asked a member of the Russian delegation the same question.

“Of course. What else could it be? They’re ours now.”

Unfortunately, when both sides of a negotiation think that they have won, it usually turns out that they both lost.

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Paying tribute to the victims of the attack in Kongsberg

Terje Bendiksby/NTB Scanpix/ZUMA
Carl-Johan Karlsson

The bow-and-arrow murder of five people in the small Norwegian city of Kongsberg this week was particularly chilling for the primitive choice of weapon. And police are now saying the attack Wednesday night is likely to be labeled an act of terrorism.

Still, even though the suspect is a Danish-born convert to Islam, police are still determining the motive. Espen Andersen Bråthen, a 37-year-old Danish national, is previously known to the police, both for reports of radicalization, as well as erratic behavior unrelated to religion.

Indeed, it remains unclear whether religious beliefs were behind the killings. In an interview with Swedish daily Dagens Nyheter, police attorney Ann Iren Svane Mathiassens said Bråthen has already confessed to the crimes, giving a detailed account of the events during a three-hour interrogation on Thursday, but motives are yet to be determined.

Investigated as terrorism 

Regardless, the murders are likely to be labeled an act of terror – mainly as the victims appear to have been randomly chosen, and were killed both in public places and inside their homes.

Mathiassens also said Bråthen will undergo a comprehensive forensic psychiatric examination, which is also a central aspect of the ongoing investigation, according to a police press conference on Friday afternoon. Bråthen will be held in custody for at least four weeks, two of which will be in isolation, and will according to a police spokesperson be moved to a psychiatric unit as soon as possible.

Witnesses have since described him as unstable and a loner.

Police received reports last year concerning potential radicalization. In 2017, Bråthen published two videos on Youtube, one in English and one in Norwegian, announcing that he's now a Muslim and describing himself as a "messenger." The year prior, he made several visits to the city's only mosque, where he said he'd received a message from above that he wished to share with the world.

Previous criminal history 

In 2012, he was convicted of aggravated theft and drug offenses, and in May last year, a restraining order was issued after Bråthen entered his parents house with a revolver, threatening to kill his father.

The mosque's chairman Oussama Tlili remembers Bråthen's first visit well, as it's rare to meet Scandinavian converts. Still, he didn't believe there was any danger and saw no reason to notify the police. Tlili's impression was rather that the man was unwell mentally, and needed help.

According to a former neighbor, Bråthen often acted erratically. During the two years she lived in the house next to him — only 50 meters from the grocery store where the attacks began — the man several times barked at her like a dog, threw trash in the streets to then pick it up, and spouted racist comments to her friend. Several other witnesses have since described him as unstable and a loner.

The man used a bow and arrow to carry the attack

Haykon Mosvold Larsen/NTB Scanpix/ZUMA

Police criticized

Norway, with one of the world's lowest crime rates, is still shaken from the attack — and also questioning what allowed the killer to hunt down and kill even after police were on the scene.

The first reports came around 6 p.m. on Wednesday that a man armed with bow and arrow was shooting inside a grocery store. Only minutes after, the police spotted the suspect; he fired several times against the patrol and then disappeared while reinforcements arrived.

The attack has also fueled a long-existing debate over whether Norwegian police should carry firearms

In the more than 30 minutes that followed before the arrest, four women and one man were killed by arrows and two other weapons — though police have yet to disclose the other arms, daily Aftenposten reports. The sleepy city's 27,000 inhabitants are left wondering how the man managed to evade a full 22 police patrols, and why reports of his radicalization weren't taken more seriously.

With five people killed and three more injured, Wednesday's killing spree is the worst attack in Norway since far-right extremist Anders Breivik massacred 77 people on the island of Utøya a decade ago.

Unarmed cops

As questions mount over the police response to the attack, with reports suggesting all five people died after law enforcement made first contact with the suspect, local police have said it's willing to submit the information needed to the Bureau of Investigation to start a probe into their conduct. Police confirmed they had fired warning shots in connection to the arrest which, under Norwegian law, often already provides a basis for an assessment.

Wednesday's bloodbath has also fueled a long-existing debate over whether Norwegian police should carry firearms — the small country being one of only 19 globally where law enforcement officers are typically unarmed, though may have access to guns and rifles in certain circumstances.

Magnus Ranstorp, a terrorism expert and professor at the Swedish Defence University, noted that police in similar neighboring countries like Sweden and Denmark carry firearms. "I struggle to understand why Norwegian police are not armed all the time," Ranstorp told Norwegian daily VG. "The lesson from Utøya is that the police must react quickly and directly respond to a perpetrator during a life-threatening incident."

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