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  • Putin Seeks to Calm Russia Over Economy
    VOICE OF AMERICA December 18, 2014 7:38 AM

    President Vladimir Putin struck an optimistic chord at his end-of-year news conference Thursday, telling Russians the country's economy will rebound and the ruble will stabilize, yet offering no new remedy in halting the deepening financial crisis.

    Putin said the current crisis could last two years at most, but the economy could recover faster if external factors change for the better.

    Speaking during an end-of-year news conference, he said the nation's currency reserves are sufficient to keep the economy in stable condition.

    Putin is under pressure to show he has a plan to fix the economy, which is heading into a recession in what one minister called "a perfect storm" of low oil prices, Western sanctions in the Ukraine crisis and global economic problems.

    Diversify economy

    The president said Russia must diversify its economy to reduce dependence on oil, its major export and a key source of state income, but he stuck largely to broad promises rather than going into details and announced no major new proposals.

    “Of course, the current situation is caused by external factors first of all, but we also understand that we have not done many of those things we planned to do and we said we would do to diversify our economy over the past 20 years,” Putin said, adding that the central bank's reaction was "adequate."

    Hinting at internal divisions, Putin also said earlier, more decisive action by the central bank, such as halting foreign exchange interventions to support the ruble sooner, might have made this week's big interest rate rise unnecessary.

    The bank increased its key lending rate by 6.5 percentage points to 17 percent on Tuesday, and has spent more than $80 billion trying to shore up the ruble this year, but to little avail.

    The ruble hit an all-time low on Tuesday, prompting Russia's central bank to reassure banks and financial companies that it would provide additional capital if necessary. At one point the currency plunged to 80 rubles to the dollar. The ruble has lost nearly 60 percent of its value against key Western currencies this year.

    Market action

    The ruble strengthened on Thursday morning ahead of Putin's speech. But by midday, it was weaker, trading at 62 rubles to the dollar.

    Putin also addressed the Ukraine crisis Thursday. He acknowledged that Western economic sanctions over Russia's course on Ukraine was just one factor behind the Russian economic crisis.

    But he also criticized NATO over its eastward expansion following the fall of the Berlin Wall.

    Putin said Russia was more determined to protect its interests but that the United States was creating threats for his country. He said Russia did not invade any other country and that Russia had just two military bases abroad, while, he said, the United States had such bases all over the world.

    Despite his tough anti-Western rhetoric, he said he wants Ukraine to remain one political entity and voiced hope that the crisis could be solved through peace talks, suggesting that Kyiv and the Russia-backed rebels in eastern Ukraine should conduct a prisoner swap before Christmas.

    Russia has been hit by Western sanctions, put in place after Putin annexed Crimea from Ukraine in March.

    Economy minister Alexei Ulyukayev told Vedomosti daily in an interview published Thursday that Russia's economy was going through a "crisis" and conceded that there was no coherent plan on how to tackle it if oil prices do not rebound.

    "I guess we found ourselves in a perfect storm, and I guess it's not an accident. Because in some way we prepared this storm ourselves," he said in an interview conducted Monday.

    Opinion polls show Putin has high popularity ratings since annexing the Crimea peninsula from Ukraine in March, but the ruble's decline and Russia's slide toward recession could erode faith in Putin's ability to provide financial stability. Putin Seeks to Calm Russia Over Economy

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    • Bloomberg: Russian tourists with rubles told nein to no at exchange kiosks
      Dec. 17, 2014, 6:22 p.m. | Russia and former Soviet Union — BLOOMBERG

      Anastasia Nagornaya, a 24-year-old Russian on vacation in France and Germany, wanted to exchange her last 5,000 rubles for euros. She was too late.

      The ReiseBank booth at Berlin’s Friedrichstrasse railway station turned away the engineer from Rostov-on-Don, as did other foreign currency kiosks in Germany’s capital.

      In London, at the ChangeGroup booth nestled between the Ritz Hotel and Fortnum & Mason on Piccadilly, cashier Amir Azam said all trade in rubles was suspended “because of how it’s been yo-yoing.” Others also stopped taking the currency.

      The ruble has collapsed more than 50 percent since June, even after the central bank increased its benchmark rate by 6.5 percentage points this week and spent about $10 billion of its reserves trying to halt the decline. In early October, 40 rubles bought $1. Now, it takes more than 60.

      “Due to the extreme drop with the Russian ruble we are not buying any rubles for the time being,” ChangeGroup, which has 120 branches in 11 countries, said on its Finnish website. “We apologize for any inconvenience this might cause.”

      The first customer at the kiosk next to Trafalgar Square this morning was a woman seeking to change 600 rubles.

      “She wasn’t happy,” said Angela Semedo, the clerk who had to tell her that the London-based company had stopped all trading in the currency the previous day.

      Selling Stock

      Anyone wanting to change rubles in London will struggle, said Sakthi Ariaratnam, director of Thomas Exchange Global Ltd., opposite the Savoy Hotel on the Strand. “Whatever we have in stock we will sell,” he said. “But we will refrain from buying. The currency’s so volatile.”

      Stockholm-based Forex Bank AB, which has about 130 branches in Sweden, Finland, Norway and Denmark, ceased to buy rubles yesterday at all its branches, Harri Andersson, head of the bank’s Finnish unit, said by telephone. Customers who bought rubles from Forex earlier will be able to change them back.

      While the lack of buyers for rubles left Russian tourists stranded, there aren’t that many to begin with, said foreign exchange companies in Paris, where rubles can still be sold, though only in small quantities and at wide margins.

      Russian tourists in Paris started drying up three weeks ago, said a manager at MultiChange, which has 10 booths in the French capital and who asked not to be identified.
      Paris Rates

      One of Paris’s largest foreign exchange booths, a few minutes from the Galeries Lafayette department store, was still buying rubles in small quantities, but at a rate of 140 to the euro, way beyond the inter-bank spot rate of about 81.

      They would sell rubles for 72 to the euro, though had none to sell because Russian tourists have vanished, said the teller, who also asked not to be named.

      By comparison, the spread on U.S. dollars was to buy them for $1.28 to the euro and sell them for $1.21.

      There were similar wide spreads at the few London booths still trading. A Foreign Exchange Services bureau on Sloane Street, Knightsbridge, was still offering to sell at 92.89 rubles per pound and buy for 115.26.

      Nagornaya, the Russian tourist passing through Berlin, is surprised by all the fuss. The economy has deteriorated since Russia’s involvement in Ukraine, though not by much, and besides, she has confidence in Vladimir Putin.

      “In Russia, the atmosphere isn’t as crazy as what’s being shown in the media here,” she said. “Our president says it’s OK. Things have been a little worse since the sanctions, but not as bad as is being said in the west.”

      She said she’s going back to Russia Friday. The teller at ReiseBank who turned her away said she still had 10,000 rubles that she’d love to sell. No luck for her either.
      Russian Tourists Get Stuck Holding Rubles From Berlin to London - Bloomberg

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      • Krassimir Yankov: Eastern Ukraine slides towards disaster
        Dec. 17, 2014, 12:28 p.m. by Krassimir Yankov KYIV POST

        LUHANSK -- It’s not easy getting to Luhansk nowadays. One must either cross an active frontline and risk getting shot at, if coming from the north, or take an eight-hour detour from the south through the self-proclaimed “Donetsk People’s Republic”, which is under the control of pro-Russian separatists. I decide to opt for the latter and, after quickly fixing my papers with the de facto authorities in Donetsk, my companions and Iare on our way.

        Driving through the Donbas, the coal-mining region of eastern Ukraine, has always been a special kind of journey. The landscapes are gray, rolling flat fields with slag heaps from nearby mines dotting the skyline every now and again. The winter, which has already settled in, adds to the gloom with its sub-zero temperatures and ice on the occasional houses we pass by. But after a while I start noticing something even more sullen – the almost complete lack of people on the streets.

        The region has suffered six months of fighting between the Kyiv-controlled and pro-Russian separatist forces. At least 4,707 people have died, according to the latest report from the UN, but the worst may still be yet to come with the region sliding into economic blockade. Things have worsened after Kyiv decided last month to cut off the region from the Ukrainian financial system, effectively banning all banking activity and severing payment of wages, pensions and social benefits. On top of this, vital medical and energy infrastructure have been destroyed during the conflict, while social services are all but absent after the withdrawal of the Ukrainian government from Donetsk and Luhansk regions.

        The de facto authorities in Luhansk, nestled in the former state administration building – now pompously called the House of the Government – are quick to assure me that everything is in order. Humanitarian aid is being distributed by extensive volunteer networks, 38 soup kitchens have opened across the separatist-controlled parts of Luhansk region, and no one is left out, they assure me. But they hasten to add that more than 60 per cent of the population are entirely dependent on humanitarian aid for their basic daily needs.

        I decide to go on my own to see whether these statements are true.

        Luhansk’s vocational boarding school for disabled children is a two-storey building tucked away in the city’s Vostochniy District, which saw some of the fighting over the summer. Some 100 children with mental disabilities, cerebral palsy and other severe conditions live in the school, which also doubles as a workshop and showcases the children’s artwork.

        “Praise be to God, we were always able to offer three hot meals per day, even during the worst of the fighting,” a senior member of staff tells me, asking to keep her identity anonymous. “But we would like to see some improvements. We rarely get any fish, we haven’t gotten any products with calcium for months,” she adds.

        The school also houses one of the humanitarian aid distribution centres which were opened in Luhansk after the first Russian humanitarian convoy arrived in late August. Right now there isn’t much to distribute, because no food has been received since September and local officials explain that the latest convoys from Russia only contained construction materials. But the volunteers are not sitting idle.

        “We have about 870 addresses of people who can’t leave their houses on their own. So now we’re visiting them, helping them get their pensions, so they can understand they’re not alone,” explains Inna Ugolnikova, a 50-something volunteer with a glowing smile and dark red lipstick.

        Many social service workers followed instructions from Kyiv and left the area during the summer after the fighting broke out, essentially leaving the most vulnerable people on their own. “We didn’t have electricity for nearly two months and these elderly and disabled people were just staying at their homes, completely alone. So when we visited them for the first time after that, they were crying,” Inna Ugolnikova added.

        As we drive out of Luhansk, a street market along Budyonnoho Boulevard captures my attention. It appears unusually large for a city under siege. Dozens of people are lined up in the mud and melting ice, presenting their goods on sheets of paper and plastic. Passers-by shoot awkward glances at the showcased wares: watches, clothes, pickled vegetables, old audio and video tapes. Suddenly it becomes clear that this is a flea market, in which everyone brought out everything that they could spare from their homes with the hope to score some extra income. But we continue to drive to a nearby village.

        Novosvitlovka is only some 20 minutes away from Luhansk by car, but it looks like another planet. The moon-like landscape is dotted with craters, scorched tanks can be seen on almost every street, and very few houses have escaped the shelling. The church at the entrance of the village has also been damaged. In the small courtyard two men are concentrating on welding together what looks like a support frame for the dome of the church.

        Next to them is Iryna Tchernyakova, 60, a local volunteer who dons a thick black coat to shield her from the frosty wind. “I’m ordering these clothes here, which are donated by people in the village for those who have lost their homes. There’s nothing else for me to do at the moment,” she tells me.

        Further down the road, at the burned-out carcass of Novosvitlovka’s former House of Culture, two more women report they hadn’t received their pension for the last five months. “No one informed us of anything, no one tried to contact us,” they said. “We are starving,” one of them added, a desperate look in her eyes.

        Dusk comes sooner in the winter, and shortly after 4 pm it’s time for me to leave. On my return journey, I can’t help but think how different conditions are in Luhansk and Novosvitlovka. And while I found no evidence to back up reports of people starving to death, parts of eastern Ukraine do seem like they’re sliding towards a humanitarian disaster.
        Krassimir Yankov: Eastern Ukraine slides towards disaster

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        • Obama Signs Into Law Bill Authorizing More Russia Sanctions
          VOA News December 18, 2014 5:07 PM

          U.S. President Barack Obama has signed into law legislation passed by the U.S. Congress authorizing more sanctions on Russia for its role in the Ukraine crisis.

          The president said in a statement Thursday that while he signed the Ukraine Freedom Support Act of 2014, it "does not signal a change" in the administration's sanctions policy. He said at this time, the administration does not intend to impose sanctions under this law, but the Act gives the administration "additional authorities that could be utilized, if circumstances warranted."

          The measure gives the administration the authority to impose further sanctions on Russia over its annexation of the Crimean peninsula from Ukraine and support for separatists in eastern Ukraine. It also authorizes $350 million in lethal and non-lethal military aid to the Ukrainian government, including anti-tank weapons, munitions and surveillance drones.

          Obama said in his statement Thursday that his administration's sanctions policy regarding Russia's actions in Ukraine has been "carefully calibrated in accordance with developments on the ground and coordinated with our allies and partners."

          On Thursday, the European Union imposed new sanctions against Crimea, which Moscow said were "absolutely unacceptable."
          Obama Signs Into Law Bill Authorizing More Russia Sanctions

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          • France abandons billion-dollar ship deal with Russia

            December 18, 2014, 7:10 PM|In 2011 France agreed to make two Mistral navy ships for Russia, but with increased military tension and Russia's involvement with the Ukraine crisis, France is backing out of the deal.

            Make sure to viiew video:France abandons billion-dollar ship deal with Russia - Videos - CBS News

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            • The Opinion Pages
              Putin’s Bubble Bursts
              DEC. 18, 2014 Paul Krugman NY TIMES

              If you’re the type who finds macho posturing impressive, Vladimir Putin is your kind of guy. Sure enough, many American conservatives seem to have an embarrassing crush on the swaggering strongman. “That is what you call a leader,” enthused Rudy Giuliani, the former New York mayor, after Mr. Putin invaded Ukraine without debate or deliberation.

              But Mr. Putin never had the resources to back his swagger. Russia has an economy roughly the same size as Brazil’s. And, as we’re now seeing, it’s highly vulnerable to financial crisis — a vulnerability that has a lot to do with the nature of the Putin regime.

              For those who haven’t been keeping track: The ruble has been sliding gradually since August, when Mr. Putin openly committed Russian troops to the conflict in Ukraine. A few weeks ago, however, the slide turned into a plunge. Extreme measures, including a huge rise in interest rates and pressure on private companies to stop holding dollars, have done no more than stabilize the ruble far below its previous level. And all indications are that the Russian economy is heading for a nasty recession.

              The proximate cause of Russia’s difficulties is, of course, the global plunge in oil prices, which, in turn, reflects factors — growing production from shale, weakening demand from China and other economies — that have nothing to do with Mr. Putin. And this was bound to inflict serious damage on an economy that, as I said, doesn’t have much besides oil that the rest of the world wants; the sanctions imposed on Russia over the Ukraine conflict have added to the damage.

              But Russia’s difficulties are disproportionate to the size of the shock: While oil has indeed plunged, the ruble has plunged even more, and the damage to the Russian economy reaches far beyond the oil sector. Why?

              Actually, it’s not a puzzle — and this is, in fact, a movie currency-crisis aficionados like yours truly have seen many times before: Argentina 2002, Indonesia 1998, Mexico 1995, Chile 1982, the list goes on. The kind of crisis Russia now faces is what you get when bad things happen to an economy made vulnerable by large-scale borrowing from abroad — specifically, large-scale borrowing by the private sector, with the debts denominated in foreign currency, not the currency of the debtor country.

              In that situation, an adverse shock like a fall in exports can start a vicious downward spiral. When the nation’s currency falls, the balance sheets of local businesses — which have assets in rubles (or pesos or rupiah) but debts in dollars or euros — implode. This, in turn, inflicts severe damage on the domestic economy, undermining confidence and depressing the currency even more. And Russia fits the standard playbook.

              Except for one thing. Usually, the way a country ends up with a lot of foreign debt is by running trade deficits, using borrowed funds to pay for imports. But Russia hasn’t run trade deficits. On the contrary, it has consistently run large trade surpluses, thanks to high oil prices. So why did it borrow so much money, and where did the money go?

              Well, you can answer the second question by walking around Mayfair in London, or (to a lesser extent) Manhattan’s Upper East Side, especially in the evening, and observing the long rows of luxury residences with no lights on — residences owned, as the line goes, by Chinese princelings, Middle Eastern sheikhs, and Russian oligarchs. Basically, Russia’s elite has been accumulating assets outside the country — luxury real estate is only the most visible example — and the flip side of that accumulation has been rising debt at home.
              Continue reading the main story

              Where does the elite get that kind of money? The answer, of course, is that Putin’s Russia is an extreme version of crony capitalism, indeed, a kleptocracy in which loyalists get to skim off vast sums for their personal use. It all looked sustainable as long as oil prices stayed high. But now the bubble has burst, and the very corruption that sustained the Putin regime has left Russia in dire straits.

              How does it end? The standard response of a country in Russia’s situation is an International Monetary Fund program that includes emergency loans and forbearance from creditors in return for reform. Obviously that’s not going to happen here, and Russia will try to muddle through on its own, among other things with rules to prevent capital from fleeing the country — a classic case of locking the barn door after the oligarch is gone.

              It’s quite a comedown for Mr. Putin. And his swaggering strongman act helped set the stage for the disaster. A more open, accountable regime — one that wouldn’t have impressed Mr. Giuliani so much — would have been less corrupt, would probably have run up less debt, and would have been better placed to ride out falling oil prices. Macho posturing, it turns out, makes for bad economies. http://www.nytimes.com/2014/12/19/op...le-bursts.html

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              • Army of volunteers contribute to Ukraine military success (Video)
                19.12.2014 | 16:43 UNIAN

                The Ukrainian military have been receiving continuous aid from numerous volunteer groups across the country, supporting their efforts in the hybrid war in the east of the country.

                Providing transport and clothing, some volunteers also make unusual gifts such as restoring military planes, Ukraine Today reports. One Kyiv-based volunteer group called Wings of Phoenix has already repaired one aircraft, with another one still in process.

                Despite the fact that the activities are unpaid, volunteers find their job rewarding and satisfying, recognizing that helping the army is essential to save the country.

                Members of volunteer groups say they prefer contributing to a common goal rather than complaining while sitting at home.

                Meanwile, uncertainty about the long-term future of the Donbas remains. Some 4,300 casualties have been reported since the beginning of the conflict, according to the UN.

                Army of volunteers contribute to Ukraine military success (Video) : UNIAN news

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                • Kimka posted following in Music sub-forum. It's wonderful. The carol was slightly rewritten to accommodate the times.

                  http://www.ukraine.com/forums/music-...tml#post127933

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                  • Obama gets bigger stick against Russia, but will he use it?
                    Dec. 19, 2014, 7:34 p.m. | Politics — by Maxim Tucker

                    The latest U.S. sanctions drive to stop Russia's war against Ukraine gives President Barack Obama the means to arm, train and equip the Ukrainian army, as well as the opportunity to impose stiffer economic sanctions.

                    But Obama's accompanying statement makes it clear that the act is intended primarily as a deterrent, warning Putin there is worse to come if he does not divert from his collision course with the West over Ukraine.

                    “At this time, the administration does not intend to impose sanctions under this law, but the act gives the administration additional authorities that could be utilized, if circumstances warranted,” Obama explained. "My administration will continue to work closely with allies and partners in Europe and internationally to respond to developments in Ukraine and will continue to review and calibrate our sanctions to respond to Russia's actions.”

                    That said, the Ukraine Freedom Support Act still provides for the possibility of US weapons, equipment and even training staff being deployed on Ukrainian soil – although the act makes clear it does not authorize actual intervention by American military forces.

                    The U.S. will, however, join the battle with Russia on another front – the propaganda war raging across former Soviet space. The act directs the chairman of national broadcasting to increase the amount of Voice of America and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty Russian-language broadcasts into Ukraine, Georgia, and Moldova -- the three ex-republics trying to join the three Baltic nations in integrating with the West.

                    Russia’s increasingly obvious Achilles’ heel – its dependence on energy exports -- is also targeted.

                    The threat of sanctions now hangs over the head of big investors looking to profit from Russian crude oil projects, adding the risk of having unrelated US property, banking and stock transactions shut down to an already unpredictable prospect.

                    Members of Russia’s other infamous industry, arms, are also on the chopping block – with Rosoboronexport, Russia’s official weapons exporter, the only target specifically mentioned in this round of sanctions, but with the president empowered to select others.

                    Other interesting inclusions in the act are plans to increase support to Russia’s besieged civil society organizations and an opaque reference to expanding uncensored internet access that will have Putin’s cyber army on high alert.

                    Moscow’s reaction over the next few weeks will determine exactly how fraught this stand-off is, but in any case, the West and Russia are bracing themselves for a prolonged period of renewed confrontation.
                    =========================
                    Given that Russia will only recalibrate given actual costs to Putin's self-interest (staying in power/alive), it's time to double down. In poker terms, when an opponent weakly flat calls your raise, do you check on the next turn, or raise? Right, you don't check, and you certainly don't show your damn cards before the hand is over.

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                    • FSB threatens pro-Ukrainian Russians with unemployment
                      2014/12/21 • Russia Paul Goble EUROMAIDAN PRESS

                      In what is likely part of a broader pattern, FSB officers in several cities in the Urals have called in for questioning Russians who have taken pro-Ukrainian sentiments online and have warned such people that they risk losing their jobs in today’s bleak economic conditions if they continue to do so, according to Kseniya Kirillova.

                      In a report on Novy Region 2 yesterday, Kirillova writes that “searches and interrogations have taken place among several [pro-Ukrainian] activists from Yekaterinburg and nearby cities.” In a report on Novy Region 2 yesterday, Kirillova writes that “searches and interrogations have taken place among several [pro-Ukrainian] activists from Yekaterinburg and nearby cities”.

                      One was called in after she posted a picture of Stepan Bandera on her Vkontakte page. Another was questioned after writing critical comments online about Moscow’s aggression in Ukraine. And a third faced what the journalist says might seem “a more prosaic” situation but one that may be even more disturbing.

                      The FSB called in Yury Kuznetsov and pointed out to him the risk he was running because “there is a crisis in the country and [at present] you have good work,” an implicit threat that he could lose his job if he continues to oppose Moscow’s policies with regard to Ukraine in any way.

                      Perhaps even more seriously, the Russian security service threatened his father’s position in its ranks. They pointed out that “your father is in our organization. He’s a respected man, he has worked many years, we know, and he is still working,” again implicitly threatening that all that could change as well.
                      Asked by the FSB why he is supporting Ukraine, Kuznetsov said he responded that his cousin, a Russian, lives in Ukraine and that his Russian nationality “has not interfered with his ability to make a good career” and that he has even been promoted in the time since the Maidan events.

                      Such actions of intimidation recall Stalin’s times, and it is perhaps appropriate that they are being reported today on what is the 135th anniversary of the birth of the Soviet dictator.
                      FSB threatens pro-Ukrainian Russians with unemployment | EUROMAIDAN PRESS | News and Opinion from Across Ukraine
                      =====================================
                      Russian govt is finally talking straight.

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                      • International Business Times: Russia's super-rich oligarchs fleeing ruble crisis for the United Kingdom - Wealthy Russians can also be put on fast-track to settle permanently
                        Dec. 21, 2014, 4:15 p.m. Tom Porter — International Business Times

                        The has been a surge in the number of wealthy Russians buying their way into the UK with special fast-track visas.

                        The number of Russians given "tier 1 investment visas", which are granted to those who invest at least £2m in the UK, is 69% higher in 2014 than over a comparable period in 2013.

                        A total of 169 of the visas were granted between January and September, with a steep increase occurring after after the West imposed sanctions on Russia following its annexation of Ukraine, reports the Sunday Times.

                        During the same period in 2013, 96 were granted, reveal Home Office figures.

                        Under the scheme, those granted the visa can apply for permanent residency after three years, if they invest £5m or more, or after two years with a £10m investment.

                        Under normal rules, those granted a visa must wait five years before they can apply for permanent residency, and a further year to apply for citizenship.

                        According to the Home Office website, Tier 1 visas usually take up to 30 days to be granted. However, applicants already in the UK can pay extra to get the visa processed within 24 hours.

                        With the ruble having crashed last week in response to dropping oil prices and western sanctions, lawyer Kamal Rahman, who handles applications at Mishcon De Reya told the newspaper that the number of applications is expected to rise.

                        "The thing our Russian clients are interested in is citizenship," she told the newspaper. "Investing the higher amount reduces the time from six years to five."

                        Last week, it was reported that increasing numbers of mansions and expensive properties were being bought up by Russians, with Knight Frank reporting that the number of super-prime London properties sold to Russians had risen by 13% in the six months leading to October.

                        Some of Russia's wealthiest oligarchs have lost millions in the ruble crash, with Roman Abramovich and Alisher Usmanov losing £400m between them in a 48-hour period. Russia's super-rich oligarchs fleeing ruble crisis for the UK

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                        • Russian ruble: In Moscow we're losing hope as retailers revert to 'wild 90s'
                          Yaroslav Zheltovskiy December 19, 2014 INTL BUSINESS NEWS

                          I was waiting for Putin's press conference on the edge of my seat, just like a lot of people here. Unlike the summer, it was not the Ukrainian crisis that grasped the attention – after months of press hysteria, Ukraine is turning into a dull media Frankenstein that's too boring to follow for the Russian people.

                          What really makes people nervous is the future of the national currency. When your salaries and savings are mostly in rubles, it's a bit difficult to keep thinking about a war in another state when your wallet's leaking. In just a few weeks the ruble plunged against the foreign currencies, causing a severe price increase for almost every good and leaving many Russian household budgets severely damaged.


                          The country's importing a lot, from food and clothes to cars and computers. Now with the euro and dollar growing expensive, the prices for imported goods are going up, making people spend more to sustain the same level of comfort they have become used to over the years, and not everybody can keep up.

                          Putin told the press conference that pensions are going to be increased to cover the actual inflation. However, he gently avoided mentioning salaries, which might leave working people face-to-face with the new reality.

                          This reality is tough: three months ago one euro equaled 47,7 rubles – now the official central bank rate is fluctuating at around 80 per euro. In an attempt to hold the fall, the regulator has rolled out counter-measures like increasing the key interest rate from 10.5% to the stunning 17%. But this measure, which was right and justified in itself, has come to look like an impulsive decision, which should have been accompanied by other moves like binding the state corporations to sell their dollars and euros.

                          Instead of soothing the panic, the central bank has made traders believe the regulator itself doesn't have a plan.

                          The anxiety in the stocks immediately communicated to the public. Frightened by the euro/dollar skyrocketing of recent days, Russians rushed to the exchanges to buy foreign currencies in commercial banks, despite the crippling interest and the obscene buy-and-sell margins. On the evening of 17 December, an operator of a Moscow exchange office said they had to review the rate five or six times during the day, and were eventually selling at 100 per euro.

                          Society still unsure

                          After a turbulent Tuesday, and a Wednesday standstill, Putin's press conference was supposed to bring some clarity to the mess. Actually, even before Putin spoke, the ruble improved impressively, assisted by the positive expectations and a stable Brent oil price. By the end of the day the dollar had fallen eight rubles and the euro lost 11 rubles, according to the Central Bank's official rates.

                          In society, the mood is still unsure. There have been reports of people selling euros and dollars, saying they are going to put their trust in the ruble. Others still take a tongue-in-cheek view of the national currency. It looks like it's still going to take some time for the people to get used to the new reality and decide on their financial strategies, but anyway everyone's looking for stability.

                          Meanwhile, some retailers are getting back to practices which seemed to have been left behind in the 'wild 90s', as these times are widely known in Russia - pricing in 'conventional units', or 'c.u.' That's the euphemism which was used for the dollar some twenty years ago when the country's economy was crippled and ruble was useless. It seems it's finding its way back again, now hiding both dollar and euro behind its name.

                          Anyway, whatever the future holds, the Russian people have little hope for a better tomorrow. And while the volatile ruble is finding its place at an unwanted low, we're doomed to keep hanging on the edge of our seats thinking how sometimes what's hard to get is easy to lose.

                          Russian ruble: In Moscow we're losing hope as retailers revert to 'wild 90s'

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                          • Sunday Review NY TIMES INTL
                            Who’s Playing Marbles Now?
                            DEC. 20, 2014 Thomas L. Friedman

                            IN March, the House Intelligence Committee chairman, Mike Rogers, was asked on “Fox News Sunday” how he thought President Obama was handling relations with Russia versus how President Vladimir Putin had been handling relations with the United States. Rogers responded: “Well, I think Putin is playing chess, and I think we’re playing marbles. And I don’t think it’s even close.”

                            Hmmm. Marbles. That’s an interesting metaphor. Actually, it turns out that Obama was the one playing chess and Putin was the one playing marbles, and it wouldn’t be wrong to say today that Putin’s lost most of his — in both senses of the word.

                            Rogers was hardly alone in his Putin envy. As Jon Stewart pointed out, Fox News has had a veritable Putin love fest going since March: Sarah Palin opined to the network that: “People are looking at Putin as one who wrestles bears and drills for oil. They look at our president as one who wears mom jeans and equivocates and bloviates.” Fox contributor Rudy Giuliani observed on the same day that in contrast with Obama, Putin was “what you call a leader.”

                            Only if leading your country to economic ruin is a form of leadership. And this is not Monday-morning quarterbacking. It has been obvious for months that Putin was fighting the market, Moore’s Law, Mother Nature and human nature all at once.

                            He bet almost his whole economy on oil and gas that only can be exploited long-term at the risk of disruptive climate change; he underestimated the degree to which technological innovation has enabled America to produce more oil, gas, renewable energy and greater efficiency, all at the same time, helping to undermine crude prices; he talked himself into believing that Ukrainians toppled their corrupt leaders only because the C.I.A. told them to — not because of the enduring human quest to realize a better future for their kids; and he underestimated how integrated and interdependent Russia is with the global markets and how deeply sanctions, over time, would bite him.

                            Let us not mince words: Vladimir Putin is a delusional thug. He created, fell in love with and is now being disabused of a fantasy notion of his and Russia’s power. Might he lash out militarily now to distract his people with more shiny objects? Yes, he might, but then he’d only be violating another rule of geopolitics: “The First Rule of Holes” — when you’re in one, stop digging.

                            I say that with no satisfaction. In fact, I say it with deep regret. I opposed NATO expansion and our unilateral ripping up of the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, when Russia was weak. I wanted — and still want — to see America partner with Russia to help stem global disorder, because in many places in the world we can’t be effective without a Russian partner. Alas, we expanded NATO — and unintentionally helped to foster the political conditions in Russia for Putin’s xenophobic, grievance-based politics to flourish.

                            But Putin also went nuts. Oil at $110 a barrel went to his head. He thought all of this was about him, his decisions, the economy he and his cronies built and on some Russian geopolitical entitlement based on history. In reality, he had bet everything on drilling oil and gas, not on building his people and their talents. He rode the price up and now it is riding him down.

                            Along the way, Putin lied to the world and deluded himself. His big lie is that the popular toppling of the corrupt government of Viktor Yanukovych in Kiev was just a Western plot to bring Ukraine into NATO. In Putin’s spook-defined world, no one has agency — except the Central Intelligence Agency (or K.G.B.). It is inconceivable to him that a critical mass of Ukrainians might have looked over at Poland and envied how well it had done since freeing itself from the Kremlin’s orbit and joining the European Union — that they might have then said to themselves, “We want that”— and that to get it they might have taken to the streets and overthrown Putin’s ally in Kiev, demanding a less corrupt, more transparent, democratic government.

                            Putin cast all of that as a C.I.A.-NATO plot in order to rally the Russian people to his side and justify his ugly grab of Crimea and his Ukraine intervention, which included indirect involvement in the shooting down of a Malaysian civilian airliner. The real truth is that Putin is not afraid of NATO expansion to Ukraine. That was never in the cards. He is afraid of European Union expansion. He does not want Ukraine to join the European customs union, adopt its anti-corruption and transparency regulations and begin to build a successful economy on European principles that every day would stand as a contrast to and critique of the nontransparent kleptocracy Putin and his oil-and-gas clique have built in Russia.

                            His big delusion is that his mind-set is trapped in a 19th-century worldview, where Russia is entitled to and will always have “spheres of influence” on its borders. But spheres of influence are not like some honorary degree you get from Moscow University and can keep forever. Today, spheres of influence have to be earned and re-earned. Because, today, thanks to technology, emergent citizens are able to articulate and organize for their own aspirations much more effectively. These are “people of influence,” and they’ve asserted themselves in squares from Tahrir to Taksim to the Maidan in Kiev. Ukraine may be the first battleground in history where people of influence have squared off against a sphere-of-influence thinker. I am still betting on the people.

                            Russia’s decline is bad for Russians, but that doesn’t mean it is good for us. When the world gets this interconnected and interdependent, you get a strategic reverse: Your friends, through economic mismanagement (see Greece), can harm you faster than your enemies. And your rivals falling (see Russia and China) can be more dangerous than your rivals rising. If Russia, an economy spanning nine time zones, goes into recession and cannot pay foreign lenders with its lower oil revenues — and all this leads to political turmoil and defaults to Western banks — that crash will be felt globally.

                            Warren Buffett observed during the 2008 economic crisis that “only when the tide goes out do you find out who is not wearing a bathing suit.” Well, the oil tide has gone out, and it revealed that Putin was swimming naked. In doing so, the country he threatens most today is Russia — but not Russia alone. A triumphant, oil-fueled Russia riding a petro-surge is dangerous; but a defeated, angry, increasingly impoverished Russia is dangerous as well. So despite all of the above, I’d be willing to see the West work with Putin to ease the sanctions on Russia, but only if Putin is ready to stop stealing other people’s marbles, only if he is truly ready to be part of the solution in places like Ukraine — not the problem. http://www.nytimes.com/2014/12/21/op...-now.html?_r=1

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                            • Matt O'Brien: The Russian people just keep paying the price for their leaders' incompetence
                              Dec. 22, 2014, 1:29 a.m. | Op-ed — by Matt O'Brien THE WASHINGTON POST

                              In the bad old days, Russia's facsimile of an economy would crash every time the price of oil did. The government would go broke, the currency would collapse, and ordinary people would see their standard of living evaporate. Now if all this sounds familiar, that's because the bad old days never went away under Vladimir Putin. He just got lucky until now.

                              So now, like they have for generations, the Russian people are paying the price for their government's economic illiteracy. And it's a miserable price to pay for the nation's 140 million people.

                              The Soviets knew this story well. The oil shocks of the 1970s filled the USSR's coffers with enough cash to not only mask the massive inefficiencies of its centrally-planned economy, but also launch its own imperial quagmire in Afghanistan. It was enough to make Americans think they were losing the Cold War.

                              But then, like that, the USSR was gone. All it took was Saudi Arabia deciding to let oil prices fall, and the Soviet empire did too. The whole Marxist-Leninist thing didn't help either. Supermarkets went empty. People went hungry. And then nobody would lend them any more money. That's how the Cold War ended: Not with a bang, but a bailout. The West loaned the bankrupt Soviets $100 billion, and, in return, the USSR let its satellite states go.

                              The end of communism, though, didn't bring prosperity. The opposite, actually.

                              Russia didn't (and still doesn't) so much have an economy as an oil exporting business that subsidized everything else. And with oil prices averaging just $17.50-a-barrel in the 1990s, that business was in bad shape. Russian companies that were used to getting handouts from the oil-rich government had to get loans from the central bank instead. This created so much new money that inflation, which had already built up due to just-ended price controls, exploded to over 800 percent. The government was able to bring this down to merely painful levels of 10 to 20 percent, but only at the cost of a protracted slump. Unemployment climbed into the double digits, all while the cost of basic goods rose out of reach for even people who managed to keep their jobs. The result, as you can see below, was a lost decade for Russia.

                              Gross domestic product per capita, adjusted for local prices, actually fell in the eight years after the USSR did.

                              Russia was still basically bankrupt, but without the benefit of bankruptcy. It simply owed the West more money than it could reasonably pay back. That, as Jeff Sachs points out, was different from how the U.S. treated other post-communist states. Sachs, you might remember, was the economist who advised the former Iron Curtain countries on the, as he called it, "shock therapy" they needed to save their failing economies as they transitioned to capitalism. The U.S., he explains, helped ease Poland's inevitable pain by giving them $1 billion to stabilize their currency and forgiving much of their debt.

                              But the U.S. wasn't so magnanimous with Russia. It wasn't magnanimous at all. Russia was required to pay back everything it owed. And in the meantime, even more debt was piled onto its rotting husk of an economy in the form of emergency IMF loans. Because a nuclear-armed country would never be allowed to default, right?

                              Well, no. It's hard to say whether Russia was the victim of bad leadership and worse luck or bad luck and worse leadership. The government's incompetence, you see, was only matched by its corruption. Economic reforms were always a day away. And behind closed doors, state-owned monopolies turned into privately-owned monopolies thanks to sweetheart deals that made government officials rich and the new oligarchs regally so. Russia, in other words, traded one gangster state for another. And its economy, so far as it had one, was still entirely based on extracting natural resources. That's why, when oil prices tumbled from their already-low levels in 1998, Russia found itself back where it'd been a decade before: bankrupt. Under pressure from markets, it devalued the ruble and defaulted on its debt.

                              Then a miracle happened: oil prices started rising. Okay, it was more China's miracle than Russia's, but, after two decades of decline and fall and even more declining, that was more than good enough for Putin. He'd become president in 1999, when oil prices averaged just under $18-a-barrel, and then watched as China's insatiable demand for raw materials helped push the price up into the triple digits over the next decade. That gave Russia so much money that even after the oligarchs—Putin's real political base—took their cut, there was still enough left over for ordinary people's living standards to improve.

                              But despite this, Russia's economy didn't really improve. Putin didn't diversify it at all, not if you don't include braggadocio. It's still all about digging things up out of the ground and selling them. That, of course, was all Putin needed to do what Russia's rulers have always done—invade a neighboring country or two—when they're feeling flush with petrodollars. But it left Russia vulnerable to the same kind of crisis that's always hit it when oil prices have unexpectedly fallen.

                              This time, at least, the government has built up a war chest of dollars to keep the ruble from falling too much. But Russia's companies became the epicenters of economic doom instead. They borrowed a lot of dollars, in part, as Paul Krugman points out, because the ruble's rise the years before had made these debts look smaller than they actually were. It didn't help that Western sanctions over Putin's incursion into Ukraine kept Russian companies from rolling over what they owed by shutting them out of international credit markets. So now that the ruble is plummeting, those dollar debts are harder to pay back, and it's sucking the economy into a death spiral.

                              This is Russia's version of Groundhog Day. Oil crashes, so does the ruble, and then unemployment balloons. Sometimes the government goes broke. Other times companies do. In any case, it's the ordinary people who suffer. They get hit by the double whammy of unemployment and inflation. So even if they're lucky enough to keep their jobs, their budgets still get squeezed by the rising cost of everyday essentials. It's even worse for imports, which make up a big chunk of the manufactured goods they buy, and have suddenly become twice as expensive now that the ruble has fallen by almost half. That's why shoppers are stampeding to buy whatever foreign products they can get their hands on—luxury cars, Apple products, or even Ikea furniture—before the ruble loses any more value.

                              Russia's winter of discontent, though, is about to get even more bleak. Its central bank just jacked up interest rates to 17 percent to try to prop up the ruble, which is so high that nobody will want to borrow. But even if they did, nobody will be able to get a loan on anything less than punitive terms when banks are so scared that they won't even lend to each other. This credit crunch will turn Russia's already-nasty recession—GDP is projected to shrink 4.7 percent if oil stays at $60-a-barrel—into a full-on depression. In a worst-case scenario, the economy could contract as much as 10 percent next year, even as inflation flirts with double digit territory.

                              It shouldn't be this way. The one thing Russia doesn't have a shortage of, after all, are brilliant scientists, programmers, and mathematicians. By all rights, it should have a booming high-tech economy. A Silicon Valley-on-the-steppes. But that would require giving people the freedom to challenge authority, which is far too much for Putin when he thinks that any opposition amounts to a "fifth column." It's safer just to dole out the old Soviet monopolies to his cronies, and let the plebes shop in the meantime. Putinism, in other words, is communism minus the pretense that all animals are equal.

                              Every happy economy might be alike, but in Russia, at least, the unhappy ones are too.
                              Putin’s Groundhog Day: The Russian people keep paying the price for their leaders’ incompetence - The Washington Post

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                              • Ukrainian Prime Minister: Putin 'Needs New Annexations'
                                Matthias Schepp & Christoph Schult Dec 20, 2014 SPIEGEL INTL

                                SPIEGEL: Mr. Prime Minister, when you took office in February, you compared your mission to that of a kamikaze pilot. How close are we to a crash?

                                Yatsenyuk: I was recently asked the same question by Chancellor Angela Merkel. I answered that I am sitting on a ticking time bomb. She said: "Previously, you said you are a kamikaze pilot, and today it's a ticking time bomb, so things have improved."

                                SPIEGEL: Is the situation so hopeless that one must resort to gallows humor?

                                Yatsenyuk: Not hopeless, but complicated. We are not only facing economic disaster and the question of peace and war. Ukrainians are traumatized by this Moscow-led aggression that has cost the lives of 5,000 people.

                                SPIEGEL: Is the West doing enough to support your country?

                                Yatsenyuk: The West is doing what it can.

                                SPIEGEL: You don't sound satisfied.

                                Yatsenyuk: The West's room for maneuver vis-a-vis Putin is limited. It is positive that the United States and the European Union show a great deal of unity. Putin did not expect that. He thought he could split the EU, but the opposite happened: The EU imposed sanctions and even scaled them up. Of course we need more financial and military aid, the supply of lethal weapons is of crucial importance to us.

                                SPIEGEL: NATO stated clearly that there's no military solution to the conflict. But you seem to think differently.

                                Yatsenyuk: A military solution would not be the best. My aim is not to start a new offensive against Russian soldiers, but to deter Russia from further aggression. The thing is that the EU is always playing by the rules. Putin is always playing with the rules. At the beginning, many thought that, after annexing Crimea, the beast would calm down. But he continued by supporting the so-called separatists in eastern Ukraine. When we started our anti-terror operation, Putin sent in regular troops. Appeasement has never worked and it won't work with Putin. Of course one can argue that Crimea belonged to the Czarist Empire two centuries ago. One can quarrel over what territory, historically, belongs to whom. But that does not give Russia the right to violate Ukraine's territorial sovereignty.

                                SPIEGEL: Is it helpful to label the Ukrainian military offensive as an anti-terror-operation at a point when many people in eastern Ukraine already view the government in Kiev with suspicion?

                                Yatsenyuk: For a long time we have been trying to win the hearts of the people in Donetsk and Luhansk. My government was ready to devote additional powers to the regions. In addition, taking into account the interest of the Russian minority, we have not moved to implement the decision by parliament on the language law and have restored the possibility for the regional councils to grant special status to regional languages, including the Russian language. But when we were attacked militarily it was our duty to defend our country.

                                SPIEGEL: Your government has stopped paying salaries and pensions to people in the territories not controlled by your government. It seems that you've already given up these parts of eastern Ukraine.

                                Yatsenyuk: That's not true. We still supply gas and electricity. That costs us $200 million per month. Those who register can receive the money in other regions. We are not able to pay salaries or refill automated teller machines because the terrorists rob the money transports.

                                SPIEGEL: How do you intend to make peace in eastern Ukraine?

                                Yatsenyuk: First we must deescalate the situation, and that is only possible on the basis of the Minsk Protocol. I am skeptical about deals with Russia, but there's nothing else we have on the table. Russia has supported and signed it. It provides that all Russian soldiers have to be pulled out. In exchange, we have promised to bestow the Donbass region with a special status and we have passed an amnesty law. The Minsk deal also stipulates that the border will be controlled by Kiev.

                                SPIEGEL: Is this the reason you are planning to build a 2,000-kilometer (1,243 mile) long fence along the border to Russia?

                                Yatsenyuk: It is also in the European interest that the border between Ukraine and Russia is well protected and illegal immigrants, weapons or drugs can no longer be smuggled via this border into Europe.

                                SPIEGEL: It would create an Iron Curtain between two brother people.

                                Yatsenyuk: I'm always very cautious about this "brotherhood" concept. Frankly speaking, I don't need such relatives who grab my land and kill my people.

                                SPIEGEL: What else would have to happen?

                                Yatsenyuk: Free elections in order to create legal regional authorities as foreseen in the Minsk deal. Then we need international donors who reconstruct our infrastructure. This strategy can only succeed if Russia withdraws entirely from Ukraine. Do I believe that Russia will do this? No, because Putin wants to retain these territories; he wants to keep his hand in our belly fat.

                                SPIEGEL: What are you planning to do in order to bring Putin to a compromise?

                                Yatsenyuk: Behind closed doors we have long thought about an exit strategy for Russia. It's clear that Putin has to find a way to save face. On the other hand, it's clear that his policies turn Putin into a drug-addicted person. His survival depends on land grabs of foreign territories. He needs new annexations. The annexation of Crimea has gained him much applause at home. But that will not last forever. The Western sanctions are beginning to take hold and the people are suffering. In order to maintain his popularity, Putin has to commit further international crimes. Otherwise he will be dead politically.

                                SPIEGEL: But the problem isn't just Putin -- many Russians seem to think like him.

                                Yatsenyuk: That worries me, yes. If 85 percent of Russians support the annexation of Crimea and the aggression against Ukraine, that is a very bad sign. The post-Soviet legacy is a heavy burden: Most Russians want to have the empire back. The only way it is possible to make that happen is to seize foreign territories.

                                SPIEGEL: Putin has always made clear that he objects having NATO troops located at the Russian border. Would Ukraine be ready to give up accession to NATO in order to placate Russian security needs?

                                Yatsenyuk: We stand firmly behind the decision made at the summit in Bucharest where it was decided that Ukraine could one day become a member of NATO. That is not only in the interest of Ukraine, but also in the interest of Europe and peace on our continent. But we also know it will take a long time until Ukraine fulfills the standards for NATO membership.

                                SPIEGEL: Are you not escalating the situation yourself by constantly meeting with NATO leaders, like Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, last Monday in Brussels?

                                Yatsenyuk: The Russians will always find a pretext for their aggression. It was Putin who said in 2005 that the biggest geopolitical disaster of the last century was the collapse of the Soviet Union. Putin wants to bring Ukraine back into the Russian sphere of influence. That is why he tried everything in order to stop the EU-Ukraine Association Agreement.

                                SPIEGEL: Will Ukraine ever join the EU given the fact that the free trade agreement was put on hold?

                                Yatsenyuk: The EU remains our dream. We must not give it up. Otherwise Putin would win. His goal is to undermine the EU. This is not only about a conflict between Russia and Ukraine. Russia is fighting against the West and its values. Therefore, the European project of Ukraine must not fail. We know that this aim requires successful reforms in Ukraine, even if they hurt now.

                                SPIEGEL: You have cut social security benefits, you have fired one in 10 government officials and you have raised taxes. Don't efforts like that increase the risk people will want an authoritarian leader in your country?

                                Yatsenyuk: I was elected despite all these measures and I am doing everything possible in order to cushion the effects of the reforms. But serious reforms are our last chance -- we have no other option. Our strongest card in that game is a Ukrainian youth that wants to belong to Europe.

                                SPIEGEL: How much money does Ukraine need in order to prevent bankruptcy?

                                Yatsenyuk: This year we received $9 billion from the IMF and individual donor states, but we paid back $14 billion in old debts. The Ukrainian economy is shrinking this year by 7 percent and our industrial production by 10 percent. But you also have to take into account that 20 percent of our industrial production was lost due to the annexation of Crimea and that we do not yet control parts of eastern Ukraine.

                                SPIEGEL: Let's come back to Chancellor Merkel. Are you happy that she is leading Germany and not one of her three predecessors -- Helmut Schmidt, Helmut Kohl or Gerhard Schröder? They have all demanded publicly that Germany and the West should be more respectful of Russian interests.

                                Yatsenyuk: Merkel is a flagship of the EU. Not everything depends on her, but much does. I have been shocked in a positive way by how Merkel is defending international law so openly and strongly. She wants to have peace and stability in the EU, and she knows that Russia is a problem in terms of security. It seems to me that many Germans are led by a certain fear of Russia. So you hear things like, "Let's avoid conflicts with Moscow, let's appease the Kremlin."

                                SPIEGEL: So Schmidt, Kohl and Schröder are wrong?

                                Yatsenyuk: Let's put it this way: Merkel is right. The chancellor cares about the whole European project and not a special relationship with Moscow. SPIEGEL Interview with Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk - SPIEGEL ONLINE

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