Tensions High Between Russia and Europe Ahead of Ukraine Peace Talks

(CN) – When Russian President Vladimir Putin is in Paris on Monday for peace talks over the conflict in Ukraine, he will face fresh questions over the Kremlin’s secret operations in Europe after Germany accused a Russian of carrying out a political assassination in Berlin and a French newspaper reported Russian spies used the French Alps as a base for operations inside Europe.

French President Emmanuel Macron, right, welcomes Russian President Vladimir Putin at the Fort of Bregancon in Bormes-les-Mimosas, southern France, on Aug. 19, 2019. (Gerard Julien, Pool via AP)

Putin and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky will meet in Paris on Monday to discuss how to end the conflict in eastern Ukraine, which erupted after Russia annexed the Crimean Peninsula in 2014. French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel will act as mediators during the talks. This is the first time in three years that the four sides are sitting down to deal with the conflict in Ukraine.

But these talks take place with Russia’s aggressive tactics toward the European Union as a backdrop. Western analysts see Russia engaged in what some call a “hybrid war” against the West, deploying a mixture of propaganda and disinformation, hacking attacks, assassinations and military confrontation.

On Wednesday, Germany expelled two Russian diplomats after federal prosecutors said evidence suggested Moscow or its allies in the republic of Chechnya ordered the killing in August of a Georgian who served as a field commander for Chechen separatists.

Then on Thursday, the French newspaper Le Monde, citing French intelligence sources, reported that Russian secret service agents used the French Alps as a base of operations. Those agents included two men accused of attacking a former Russian double agent and his daughter with a chemical agent in England in 2018.

Both developments this week underscored what has become an unsettling pattern of Russian covert operations and political interference in Europe that analysts say increased after the EU and the United States imposed hefty sanctions on Russia for its annexation of Crimea.

“It’s absolutely evident that Russia is very active since 2014 with numerous hybrid measures,” Paul Ivan, an expert on Russia and security with the European Policy Centre, a Brussels-based think tank, said in a telephone interview with Courthouse News on Friday.

“It is going on for several years,” he said. “The understanding [by Europeans] of what’s happening has increased.”

A crucial window into the darker side of Russia’s efforts in Europe was opened up on Thursday by Le Monde.

The newspaper reported that 15 Russian spies who specialize in targeted killings made the picturesque Haute-Savoie region in the French Alps a base camp for their operations between 2014 and 2018. The officers, the newspaper reported, were attached to Unit 29155 of the G.R.U., as Russia’s military intelligence agency is widely known.

The unit’s existence was first publicly reported by the New York Times in October. The unit has been linked to a thwarted 2016 coup attempt in Montenegro, a small Balkan country seeking entry into the EU, and an attempted killing of a Bulgarian arms dealer.

The unit’s agents also were allegedly behind the assassination attempt of Sergei Skripal in March 2018. Two agents allegedly sought to kill Skripal using Novichok, a toxic nerve agent. Skripal was a former G.R.U. colonel and a double agent for British secret services. Since the attack on Skripal, Western intelligence agencies have stepped up countermeasures against Russian agents.

“We see a reaction from the European security services who have started to track these guys around Europe,” Ivan said.

Now German authorities are linking the Aug. 23 killing of an ethnically Chechen Georgian citizen to a Russian agent. The Georgian, who was initially identified as Zelimkhan Khangoshvili, was shot in a Berlin park on his way to a mosque by a man on an electric bicycle.

German authorities said Khangoshvili was also known as Tornike K., and that Russian authorities had him on a terrorist list, accusing him of being a member of the Caucasus Emirate extremist organization, according to the Associated Press.

Tornike K. was known to have fought against Russian troops in Chechnya. He had survived multiple assassination attempts and continued to receive threats after fleeing to Germany in 2016, the AP said.

The alleged assailant has been identified by German and international news outlets as Vadim Sokolov. German federal prosecutors said they believed he was contracted by the Russian government or the autonomous Chechen Republic, which is part of the Russian Federation, to carry out the killing. Germany expelled two Russian diplomats over the case. Russian authorities denied the allegations. They also have denied any involvement in the attack on Skripal.

Merkel said she plans to talk with Putin about the killing in Berlin when they meet on Monday.

The talks are a continuation of negotiations over Ukraine that were first held in Normandy, France, in 2014, shortly after Russia supported separatists in the Donbass industrial region in eastern Ukraine.

In 2015, following a series of battlefield losses by its forces, Ukraine signed a peace agreement in the Belarusian capital of Minsk. Under the accord, separatist regions were to be granted wide autonomy. But the terms of the accord sparked outrage in Ukraine, leading it to not grant autonomy and a sweeping amnesty for separatists as stipulated by the agreement.

Sporadic fighting continues in a conflict that has killed more than 14,000 people.

Putin is pushing Ukraine to accept the Minsk accord and he may win the support of Macron, who is in favor of re-establishing political ties with Russia. Zelensky, though, says the Minsk deal is bad for Ukraine and he wants it revised.

There are hopes that the two sides can reach a lasting cease-fire, but analysts do not expect any major developments.

“I don’t expect a breakthrough,” Ivan said. “I think the differences between the two sides – Russia and Ukraine – are too big to be easily breached.”

He expects sanctions to remain in place because they can only be lifted once the conditions of the Minsk agreement are met.

“From a Russian perspective, things are moving in the right direction,” he said.

He cited an increase in trade between the EU and Russia, despite the sanctions, and a softening toward Russia by some in the West, most notably Macron.

(Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.)

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