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Photo Credit: The Associated Press

The last decade has witnessed a proliferation of proxy wars throughout the Middle East, Africa, central Asia and Southeast Asia. These are violent, often genocidal, conflicts between local groups fueled by larger foreign actors. The Pakistanis have been a notorious practitioner of this strategy, funding the Taliban and other extreme groups throughout war zones in Afghanistan and Kashmir. Iran has played a similar game in Iraq, Afghanistan, Lebanon, and the Palestinian territories.

Russia, however, has become the worst offender. Its direct military support for violent forces in Syria and Ukraine poses one of the greatest threats to international stability today as we have seen in the recent downing of Malaysia Airlines flight 17 by Russian-supported Ukrainian rebels. In Syria, Russia’s aid to the military of Bashir al-Assad has contributed to the deaths of tens of thousands of civilians and a civil war that is breaking apart the states in the region. The rise of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), a rump group of extremists in control of territory stretching from the Syrian border with Turkey to the Iraqi cities of Ramadi and Falluja, is a result of the fighting surrounding Assad. He and his Russian, as well as Iranian, supporters have attracted a transnational Islamic revolt that has drawn fighters from across the region and beyond. The extremists have filled a political vacuum in the areas that Assad and the deeply divided Iraq government cannot control. Through its military support and its veto of United Nations action, Russia has prevented a solution to this crisis.

Recent events in Ukraine fit the same dangerous pattern of Russian behavior. On March 21 Russian President Vladimir Putin forcefully annexed the Crimean Peninsula, taking the Black Sea territory from Ukraine. He had done this by sending irregular Russian forces into the territory, motivating local Russian-supporters to stage a Moscow-inspired rebellion against Ukrainian authorities. The international community universally condemned Russian aggression, but Putin falsely claimed this was a legitimate act to protect Russian speakers.

Putin made a similar argument for the eastern part of Ukraine, which also has a large Russian-speaking population, especially in industrial cities like Donetsk.  Russia has deployed advanced weapons, military trainers and its own soldiers to support a violent separatist movement in Ukraine. It is fueling a proxy war, designed to create a separate Russian Ukrainian state that will stand against the European Union (EU) and North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO.)

The brutality of Russia’s proxy wars in Syria and Ukraine created the Malaysian Airliner tragedy that resulted in the tragic death of 298 innocent civilians, none of whom had any connection to these conflicts. On July 17 Russian-supported rebels in Ukraine, and perhaps Russian military forces, fired a surface-to-air missile at what they thought was a Ukrainian government airplane. They were using these missile attacks to destroy government aircraft threatening rebel-held areas. The accidental destruction of the civilian aircraft was the result of this aggressive use of force against the Ukrainian state, made possible by the most sophisticated Russian military hardware. Without Putin’s support, the Ukrainian separatists would never have threatened the Malaysian airliner, flying 30,000 feet above the ground.

The escalating violence of Russia’s proxy wars undermines hopes for stability in Eastern Europe and the Middle East. These conflicts will continue to produce a large death toll, destabilize local governments, and demand American and allied intervention in response. President Barack Obama has condemned Russian behavior and he has led efforts to implement stiff economic sanctions on key Russian actors, including many of Putin’s closest business supporters, the “Oligarchs.” President Obama has had mixed success encouraging the European Union and other key international actors to act similarly.

The time has come for a more significant American response. The United States should initiate a firm policy of containing Russian meddling beyond its borders. The President should offer a detailed public account of Russia’s actions, he should forthrightly condemn this behavior, and he should isolate Moscow from full participation from all American-influenced trade and diplomatic organizations until Moscow abandons its support for proxy wars. The purpose is not to isolate Russia permanently, but to make Putin and his supporters pay a heavy international and domestic cost for their aggressive behavior. Negotiations can continue with Moscow, as they always should, but Russia should no longer benefit from status as a respected international actor. It is indeed a rogue state, and will remain such as long as Putin continues his current proxy war policies. Nothing is gained by operating from old, wishful fictions. 

Suri is a history professor who specializes in international modern history. 

A resident cycles past soldiers in unmarked uniforms standing guard outside the Ukrainian Military Prosecutor’s Office in Simferopol, Crimea, Thursday, March 20, 2014. The lower house of Russian parliament voted Thursday to make Crimea a part of Russia following Sunday’s Crimean referendum in which its residents overwhelmingly backed breaking off from Ukraine and joining Russia.

Photo Credit: The Associated Press

Political conflict in Eastern Europe has not only affected Russia’s relations with the West, but also UT summer study abroad programs in the region.

Russian Express, a language and culture program that has students spend four weeks in Kiev, Ukraine and four weeks in Moscow during the summer, was forced to move the location from Ukraine three weeks ago after political unrest erupted in the country, according to Elliot Nowacky, administrator and resident director for the program.

The 11 students participating in Russian Express selected Irkutsk, Russia, located in Siberia, as the new destination, Nowacky said.

Nowacky is also the administrator for the Moscow-Texas Connections Program, where students spend 10 weeks in Moscow at the Higher School of Economics. Nowacky said this program will continue as scheduled.

“We’ve gotten no indication from our partners at the Higher School of Economics that it’s going to be a problem getting the visas, which is required for [the students] to go to Russia in order to study,” Nowacky said.

The five-week Moscow Plus Program was canceled on March 6 by Thomas Garza, Slavic languages and literature associate professor, mainly because of a low number of participants, according to Betsy Brown, program and outreach coordinator for the Texas Language Center.

According to Brown, the summer program had more than six applications this year, but participants kept dropping out for personal reasons or to join another program where they could receive grant support, such as Moscow-Texas Connections. Brown said there eventually ended up being only a few participants who had confirmed enrollment by March 1.

“That doesn’t really make a study abroad program,” Brown said. “We thought we would be able to merge [Moscow Plus] with another program, but it just kept getting smaller and smaller.”

Garza said his decision to cancel the Moscow Plus Program was affected by the heated relations between the U.S. and Russia over Russia’s intervention in Crimea and Ukrainian politics.

“The added complication of the Crimea crisis and the effect that it might have on securing visas this spring certainly weighed on my decision, but it was the low [participation] that persuaded me to postpone this year’s program,” Garza said.  “I hope to run the program again in the future.”

Zachary Berru, international relations and global studies sophomore who planned to participate in Moscow Plus, said even if the program is held in the future, he is no longer sure if he wants to travel to Russia.

“This situation [between the U.S. and Russia] is escalating way too rapidly, and I’m fearful things will get only worse,” Berru said. “I personally don’t feel like it would be safe at this point.”

Learning today of the death of Van Cliburn, I thought back. I remembered back to January or February of 1959 in Austin when I was very fortunate that my freshman roommate, Ed Pickett from Liberty (as I was) insisted that I get up early one Sunday morning to hustle over to Gregory Gym from Goodall Wooten. Van Cliburn gave a wonderful 10 a.m. concert, still fresh from his Moscow musical victory. It was a musical moment, the personal significance of which has grown more important to me over the years. I thought of Van Cliburn when I visited Moscow in 1990. A great Texan.         

Dale P. Johnson, UT alumnus 1962

MOSCOW — Thousands of people marched through Moscow on Sunday to protest Russia’s new law banning Americans from adopting Russian children, a far bigger number than expected in a sign that outrage over the ban has breathed some life into the dispirited anti-Kremlin opposition movement.

Shouting “shame on the scum,” protesters carried posters of President Vladimir Putin and members of Russia’s parliament who overwhelmingly voted for the law last month. Up to 20,000 took part in the demonstration on a frigid, gray afternoon.

Opponents of the adoption ban argue it victimizes children to make a
political point.

MOSCOW — Facebook head Mark Zuckerberg was in Moscow on Monday, where top officials were pressing him to expand the company’s operations in Russia.

Russia’s communications minister tweeted that Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev urged the social media giant’s founder to abandon plans to lure away Russian programmers and instead open a research center in Moscow.

A Facebook spokeswoman, who refused to be named because she wasn’t authorized to discuss the matter with the media, said the company has no immediate expansion plans for Russia.

FORT WORTH, Texas (AP) — Renowned classical pianist Van Cliburn has been diagnosed with advanced bone cancer and is resting comfortably at his Texas home, his publicist said Monday.

The 78-year-old Cliburn is under excellent care and his spirits are high, said longtime friend and publicist Mary Lou Falcone.

Cliburn skyrocketed to fame in 1958 when he won the first International Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow at age 23. He triumphantly returned to a New York ticker tape parade, the only one ever for a classical musician, and a Time magazine cover proclaimed him “The Texan Who Conquered Russia.”

In the years that followed, Cliburn’s popularity soared, and the young man from the small east Texas town of Kilgore sold out concerts, broke record sales, caused riots when spotted in public and even prompted an Elvis Presley fan club to change its name to his.

But he tired of years of performing mainly the same pieces that made him famous — such as Tchaikovsky’s “Piano Concerto No. 1,” which had sealed his Moscow win — and took a sabbatical in 1978, feeling emotionally drained from nonstop touring. Cliburn later moved from New York to Fort Worth, where he currently lives and where he remained active in the arts and social scenes. He began playing publicly again in the late 1980s.

Until only recently, Cliburn practiced daily and performed limited engagements.

He has performed for every president since Harry Truman, and for years has devoted his time to the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition. Founded by Fort Worth music teachers in 1962, it’s held every four years and considered among the world’s premier piano competitions.

Cliburn won a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 2004, and was presented with the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2003.

He was already an accomplished pianist before winning the 1958 competition in Moscow. He started taking piano lessons from his mother at age 3, then debuted with the Houston Symphony Orchestra at age 12. He studied at Juilliard, won the famed Leventritt Competition and performed with several orchestras across the country — including the New York Philharmonic.

MOSCOW — Firefighting helicopters are trying to put out a spectacular blaze atop an under-construction Moscow skyscraper, planned to be Europe’s tallest building.

Orange flames were leaping about 880 feet Monday, visible in the night sky to much of the city.

No injuries have been reported at the fire in the eastern tower of the Federation Tower complex, part of a massive development along the Moscow River about 2.5 kilometers (1.5 miles) west of the Kremlin.

The cause of the fire was not immediately determined.The tower, when completed, is to be 1150 feet tall.

Published on Tuesday, April 3, 2012 as: Moscow firefighters fight fire in tallest future building in Europe

MOSCOW — Russia said Monday that Syria’s government and rebels should halt their fighting once a day to give the Red Cross access to the wounded and that jailed protesters should be allowed to have visitors.

The call from Russia, an important ally of Syria’s, came after its officials met with the International Committee of the Red Cross, which had urged Moscow to take such a stand.

Russia had previously backed the ICRC’s call for a cease-fire, but Monday’s statement from the Foreign Ministry was worded more strongly than the previous ones, in an apparent signal that Moscow is raising the pressure on Syria.

The statement followed Moscow’s talks between ICRC President Jakob Kellenberger and Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov focusing on the humanitarian situation in Syria.

Russia’s Foreign Ministry said it agrees with the ICRC about what is needed during Syria’s uprising. ICRC spokeswoman Carla Haddad Mardini welcomed Moscow’s response, saying his organization “received positive indications of support on its operational priorities and on its call for a two-hour cessation in fighting on a daily basis.”

The Red Cross has not received permission from Syria to access all parts of the country affected by the fighting. Damascus also has not agreed to daily cease-fires.

Mardini said the meeting with Lavrov was part of contacts “with all those who could have a positive influence on its action in Syria,” adding that the Red Cross hopes to “see concrete results of such meetings on the ground in the coming days or weeks.”

“Our main interlocutors remain the Syrian authorities and the Syrian opposition,” she added.

Russia and China have protected Syria from United Nations sanctions over its crackdown on the uprising, in which more than 8,000 people have been killed. But Moscow recently has shown some signs that it was losing patience with Syrian President Bashar Assad’s harsh stance.

Lavrov told lawmakers last week that the Syrian leader has been slow to implement long-needed reforms, warning that the conflict in the Arab state could spiral out of control.

He also complained in a weekend interview with state television about the “unproportional” use of force by the government troops and said that Moscow disagrees with many of the decisions made by the Syrian leadership.

“We are supporting the need to start a political process, and to do that it’s necessary to have a cease-fire first,” Lavrov said. “Russia will do everything for that, irrespective of the decisions made by the Syrian government. We disagree with many of those, by the way.”

Printed on Tuesday, March 20, 2012 as: Russia presses Syrian daily truces to grant Red Cross access to aid

MOSCOW — An attempt by Vladimir Putin’s foes to protest his presidential election victory by occupying a Moscow square ended Monday with riot police quickly dispersing and detaining hundreds of demonstrators — a stark reminder of the challenges faced by Russia’s opposition.

The harsh crackdown could fuel opposition anger and bring even bigger protests of Putin’s 12 years in power and election to another six, but it also underlined the authorities’ readiness to use force to crush such demonstrations.

The rally marked a change of tactics for the opposition, which has been looking for ways to maintain the momentum of its demonstrations that flared in December. Alexei Navalny, a popular blogger and one of the most charismatic protest leaders, was the first to suggest that supporters remain on Moscow’s streets and squares to turn up the heat on Putin.

For Putin, the opposition move raised the specter of the 2004 Orange Revolution in Ukraine, where demonstrators camped on Kiev’s main square in massive protests that forced officials to throw out a fraud-tainted election victory by the Kremlin-backed candidate.

The government’s response Monday night was fast and brutal. Lines of officers in full riot gear marched into tree-lined Pushkin Square and forced protesters into waiting police buses. About 250 people were detained around the city, police said.

The crackdown followed a rally that drew about 20,000 people angry over an election campaign slanted in Putin’s favor and reports of widespread violations in Sunday’s voting.

Putin commands the loyalty of police and the military, whose wages were recently doubled. Following Monday’s massive show of force, the urban middle-class forming the core of the protests could be more reluctant to attend future demonstrations.

Navalny — who sought to electrify the crowd with a passionate call of “We are the power!” — was among those detained, along with opposition leader Sergei Udaltsov. Both were released from police custody a few hours later.

“We are calling for peaceful action of civil disobedience, and we shall not leave,” Navalny shouted to the crowd. “We know the truth about this government. This is the government of crooks and thieves.”

Upon his release from police custody, Navalny told 30-40 supporters who greeted him that another protest was planned for Saturday in Moscow and other cities.

“We will keep on fighting until we win,” he said.

Putin, who was president from 2000-08 and is the current prime minister, won more than 63 percent of the vote, according to the nearly complete official returns, but the opposition alleged massive ballot fraud. Communist Party candidate Gennady Zyuganov finished a distant second with 17 percent.

“The campaign has been unfair, cowardly and treacherous,” said opposition leader Grigory Yavlinsky, who was denied registration for the race on a technicality.

International election monitors pointed to the lack of real competition and said the vote count “was assessed negatively” in almost a third of polling stations that observers visited.

“There was no real competition, and abuse of government resources ensured that the ultimate winner of the election was never in doubt,” said Tonino Picula, the head of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe observer mission. “Broadcast media was clearly biased in favor of one candidate and did not provide fair coverage of the other candidates.”

Russian observers cited numerous reports of “carousel voting,” in which busloads of voters were driven around to cast ballots multiple times, as well as other violations. They said the number appeared to be as high as in December’s disputed parliamentary vote that kicked off the protests.

The independent Russian elections watchdog Golos said incomplete reports from its observers at individual polling station counts contradicted the official vote count, indicating that Putin was perilously close to the 50-percent mark needed for a first-round victory.

Monday’s rally was sanctioned by authorities, but security was tight, with about 12,000 police deployed.

The estimate of about 20,000 people was significantly smaller than previous protests that drew up to 100,000 — perhaps because of the relatively modest size of Pushkin Square. Rally organizers picked the site for its symbolic importance for the nation’s democratic movement in the waning days of the Soviet Union and also for its proximity to the Kremlin.

Udaltsov, one of the organizers, urged protesters to stay on the square until Putin stepped down.

“If it was a free election, why have they flooded the entire city with troops?” Udaltsov shouted to the crowd, which responded: “They fear us!”

After the rally ended, Navalny, Udaltsov and other opposition leaders were joined by several hundred protesters who tried to stay on the square, chanting: “We shall not leave!”

Hundreds of riot police surrounded them, but waited more than an hour before breaking it up.

Dozens of passersby angrily chanted “Shame! Shame!” as they watched riot police drag the protesters into waiting buses.

“This is a police state!” a man in his 40s told a friend by cellphone.

An elderly woman added: “This is outrageous!”

Shortly after his arrest, Navalny posted a picture to Twitter of a group of people detained along with him in the same prison van.

“One man in a paddy wagon is calmly smoking an electronic cigarette. One is using his iPad to talk on Skype. One person is reading a book,” he wrote in a separate tweet.

Police also rounded up protesters who tried to walk toward the Kremlin.

Some demonstrators grew angry when they saw riot police blocking their way on Tverskaya Street, Moscow’s main avenue. A man shouted “Moscow is my city!” and a young woman screamed in fear as police pushed demonstrators back.

Police also detained Eduard Limonov, the leader of the banned National Bolshevik Party, and dozens of his supporters who tried to rally on Lubyanka Square near election commission headquarters. The main KGB successor agency is located on the same square.

In St. Petersburg, about 300 protesters were arrested when about 2,000 people gathered for an unauthorized rally.

Putin’s win was assured as he faced a weak slate of Kremlin-approved candidates and many across the country still see him as a guarantor of stability and the defender of a strong Russia against a hostile world, an image he has carefully cultivated.

He has relied on massive coverage by state television, denouncing his foes as Western stooges working to weaken Russia.

Putin claimed victory to a large crowd of supporters outside the Kremlin on Sunday night, before all the votes were counted. His eyes filled with tears, he defiantly proclaimed that they had defeated opponents intent on “destroying Russia’s statehood and usurping power.”

U.S. Sen. John McCain, who had goaded Putin in the past on Twitter, reacted quickly to the images of Putin’s tears with an acerbic tweet: “Dear Vlad, Surprise! Surprise! You won. The Russian people are crying too!”

The protesters on Monday mocked Putin’s tears as evidence of his fear of the opposition. “We have seen a man who wasn’t sure of himself,” said Ilya Yashin, one of the opposition leaders.

“Moscow does not believe in tears,” one placard read, a sarcastic play on the title of an Academy Award-winning Russian movie from 1980.

Vladimir Belyayev, a 62-year-old protester, held a sign that said, “People, where is your self-dignity?”

“I have nothing to fear,” he said.

Mikhail Kasyanov, who served as prime minister during Putin’s first term before becoming an opposition leader, urged protesters to focus on demanding a rerun of the fraud-tainted parliamentary election in December, which allowed Putin’s party to retain its majority in the lower house.

“Early Duma election is our immediate goal!” he shouted. “Putin is afraid of us!”

In an apparent bid to assuage the opposition anger, outgoing President Dmitry Medvedev told the Justice Ministry to present its explanation for last year’s rejection of registration for the People’s Freedom Party, an organization led by some of the opposition’s most prominent figures.

In another apparent attempt to soothe protesters. Medvedev also ordered the prosecutor-general to re-examine the legality of the conviction of imprisoned former oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky and more than 30 others regarded by the opposition as political prisoners.

The Obama administration congratulated the Russian people for turning out to vote in big numbers in Sunday’s election, but it also expressed concern about allegations of fraud and urged a full investigation into the charges.

The State Department said the U.S. would work with Russia’s “president-elect” once the votes are certified, but pointedly did not mention Putin by name or congratulate him.

U.S. Ambassador Michael McFaul voiced concern about Monday’s crackdown, tweeting: “Troubling to watch arrests of peaceful demonstrators at Pushkin square. Freedom of assembly and freedom of speech are universal values.”

Russian Prime Minister and presidential candidate Vladimir Putin, left, flanked by President Dmitry Medvedev, has tears in his eyes as he addresses a massive rally of his supporters at Manezh square outside Kremlin, in Moscow, Russia on Sunday.

Photo Credit: The Associated Press

MOSCOW — Vladimir Putin swept Sunday’s presidential election to return to the Kremlin and extend his hold over Russia for six more years, incomplete returns showed. His eyes brimming with tears, he defiantly proclaimed to a sea of supporters that they had triumphed over opponents intent on “destroying Russia’s statehood and usurping power.”

Putin’s win was never in doubt as many across the vast country still see him as a guarantor of stability and the defender of a strong Russia against a hostile world, an image he has carefully cultivated during 12 years in power.

Accounts by independent observers of extensive vote-rigging, however, looked set to strengthen the resolve of opposition forces whose unprecedented protests in recent months have posed the first serious challenge to Putin’s heavy-handed rule. Another huge demonstration was set for Monday evening in central Moscow.

With fewer than a quarter of the votes counted, Putin spoke to tens of thousands of supporters at a rally just outside the Kremlin walls. Many of them were government workers or employees of state-owned companies who had been ordered to attend.

Putin, 59, said the election showed that “our people can easily distinguish a desire for renewal and revival from political provocations aimed at destroying Russia’s statehood and usurping power.”

The wave of protests began after a December parliamentary election in which observers produced evidence of widespread vote fraud. Protest rallies in Moscow drew tens of thousands in the largest outburst of public anger in post-Soviet Russia, demonstrating growing exasperation with the pervasive corruption and tight controls over political life under Putin.

Golos, Russia’s leading elections watchdog, said it received numerous reports of “carousel voting,” in which busloads of voters are driven around to cast ballots multiple times.