New York: The Hunt for the Butchers of Bucha

Lena, a corporate executive living in Germany, left her native Ukraine in the 1990s but stays in regular contact with her extended family there. When Russia struck the family’s town soon after the invasion started, they sent Lena photos of bomb damage. Around the same time, she was searching for news about the war on social media when she came across an appeal by Ben Strick, an open-source investigator, for images to geolocate. She sent him one picture, and then more. “After three or four images, he offered me to join the team on a voluntary basis,” she says. “So I did.”

Today, Lena spends three hours a day of her spare time working with Strick’s team at the Center for Information Resilience, a U.K.-based nonprofit dedicated to countering misinformation, part of a worldwide community of open-source intelligence (OSINT) researchers studying the war in Ukraine. Like the rest of the world, the team has been shaken by the images from Bucha, where Russian forces are accused of executing civilians and torturing Ukrainian soldiers. For the past week, Lena and her colleagues have contributed to a collective effort to identify and locate the perpetrators — a task that’s especially relevant to Lena because her family members are currently living under Russian occupation as Bucha’s residents were. “Right now, it’s pretty peaceful where they live, but I don’t think it will stay that way. The fights will come,” she says. (Out of concern for their safety, she asked me to change her name.) Continue reading New York: The Hunt for the Butchers of Bucha

New York: The Superyacht Market Just Lost Some of Its Best Customers. It Doesn’t Care.

The 2022 Palm Beach International Boat Show is getting under way this weekend in Florida with all the lavishness you’d expect: $1.2 billion worth of boats glistening along the inland waterway, a VIP pavilion with open bar, and an accompanying contemporary-art fair. What it won’t have is many customers from the country that until recently was the second-largest market in the world for high-end yachts. Russia, which according to market observers has made up 9 percent of the total superyacht market, has been abruptly sidelined by the west’s unprecedented economic sanctions over the invasion of Ukraine. You’d never know it from the way the yacht market is booming.

“2022 started extremely well and we have seen strong sales activity across the board, which we expect to continue,” says Richard Lambert, head of sales at the yacht-brokerage firm Burgess, which sold more than $2 billion worth of yachts last year.

Losing a tenth of your customer base isn’t such a big deal, apparently, when the market is white-hot. For one thing, the sort of person who might buy a superyacht — often defined as any vessel for personal use over 131 feet in length — is in plentiful supply these days. Though the COVID pandemic triggered a worldwide recession, it saw the number of the world’s billionaires climb from 2,095 to 2,755 and their cumulative wealth increase by 60 percent, or $5 trillion.

If the sudden disappearance of Russian yacht buyers does ultimately have an effect, it may only be at the very highest end of the market. “Clients from Russia and the Middle East have a higher average length of yachts,” says Merijn de Waard, founder and director of SuperYacht Times. “They are more keen on the very big boats.” According to the publication’s statistics, the average Russian-owned superyacht is 200 feet long, compared to 177 feet for American-owned ones. Of the 13 superyachts that are over 140 meters in length (459 feet), nine are owned by Arab royalty and four of them are owned by Russians. Or maybe five. Italian authorities are currently holding the 459-foot Scheherazade in a small port on the Tuscan Coast. The owner might be the richest Russian of all, Vladimir Putin — no one’s completely sure. Continue reading New York: The Superyacht Market Just Lost Some of Its Best Customers. It Doesn’t Care.

Putin’s War Isn’t Just in Ukraine. It’s in America, Too

Photo by Matti from Pexels

The specter of Russian troops and tanks pouring into Ukraine has shocked the world and generated collective revulsion. Putin’s motives in carrying out this unprovoked attack are clear. Ukraine’s democratic society presents an existential threat to his regime, because it shows the Russian people that there is a better alternative to Putin’s oppressive and corrupt autocracy.

Scenes of Ukrainian resistance have stirred onlookers around the globe, and caused many to wonder: what can I do to help? Some answers including attending rallies, donating to charities that support Ukraine, and letting your legislators know how you feel. But the most important — indeed, the super urgent — thing any of us can do is to realize that the fight isn’t just over there. The invasion of Ukraine is just one battle in a worldwide campaign of fascist aggression. And one of the most important theaters of war is right here in the United States.

This has been true for a long time, but so far it’s been hard for the majority of Americans to accept. As we saw during the buildup to the invasion of Ukraine, even in the face of clear evidence, it’s difficult for many to grasp the extent of Putin’s ruthlessness and ambition. Hopefully the launching of this conventional aggression will stir Americans out of their slumber.

How do we know that America is under Russian attack? The evidence has been sitting in plain sight. Continue reading Putin’s War Isn’t Just in Ukraine. It’s in America, Too

New York: Ian Urbina’s Perfect Storm: Did a journalist get into the music business to help the oceans or help himself?

By the time I get Ian Urbina on the phone Wednesday afternoon, he’s ready to tell his story. He picks up on the first ring and makes quick work of the pleasantries. “So, if it’s okay with you,” he says, “my inkling would be to start with kind of its origin story? You’re welcome to record.” Sure, I say, and away he goes.

It’s not hard to hear the edge of unease in his voice, the anxiety of a veteran newspaperman who has had a hand in crafting many narratives and has spent the last five days watching his own spin decisively out of control. To be fair, his particular crisis is one that a Pulitzer Prize–winning former New York Times reporter could scarcely have imagined unfolding even a few years ago. It’s a distinctly 2021 scandal, and one he’s figuring out how to navigate on the fly.

The week before had started out actually quite well for Urbina. On Sunday, November 28, the New Yorker published his 10,000-word opus about Libya’s renegade coast guard militias, a piece that landed him a spot on MSNBC’s All In With Chris Hayes and NPR’s All Things Considered. But then, on Thursday, came something unexpected. A musician and YouTuber named Benn Jordan posted a 20-minute video entitled “How A NYTimes Reporter Collects Royalties From Hundreds of Musicians” that accused him of engineering an elaborate swindle in an entirely different line of business. Urbina was signing up artists to make music for a side project by promising them huge exposure that never materialized in exchange for collecting half the revenue. The case laid out by Jordan was strange, outrageous, and not entirely accurate —and triggered a swift Twitter pile-on.

It was at this juncture that Urbina made a questionable tactical decision. He went on the attack. Instead of engaging with the charges, he tried to crush them, blocking Jordan on Twitter along with anyone else who criticized him. He posted a statement on Medium calling Jordan’s video a “mass trolling.” And he shut down journalists trying to report out the story. When Inputmagazine reached out to him, Urbina declined to answer questions, nor did he respond when Rolling Stone asked for comment.

The results were not good. “Folks were making death threats,” Urbina tells me.

“You’re getting death threats?” I ask.

“Not a lot of them. But yes, we’ve gotten, you know, it’s just — you would be amazed.” Then he catches himself, and I feel the weird hall-of-mirrors effect of interviewing someone who is very experienced at interviewing others and therefore very aware of how his words sound and how they might be used. “But, you know, I don’t know if I should say that on record, because it could be like, ‘Oh, look, he’s complaining and he’s trying to play this.’ And I’m not doing that.”

He presses on, explaining in a clear, steady cadence what happened and why. It’s all a misunderstanding, he says; and where Jordan sees a scam, Urbina describes a plan to expand the reach of his journalism to a new audience. The case he makes is mostly compelling, but there are gaps. Continue reading New York: Ian Urbina’s Perfect Storm: Did a journalist get into the music business to help the oceans or help himself?

New York: ‘It Was Weird and Culty’: Carlos Watson’s Mismanagement of Ozy

In the end, Ozy got the attention it always craved. The digital media site was founded in 2013 with the intention of breaking the mold of conventional media. But few of its stories ever got traction, and the site itself was rarely talked about. That all changed this past Sunday, when the Times’s Ben Smith revealed that its two top executives had attempted to deceive potential investors on a conference call by pretending that one of them was a YouTube executive — an act that prompted an FBI investigation. The story exploded in media circles. Wave after wave of follow-up stories uncovered new layers of deception. Everyone was talking about Ozy but in the worst possible way: as a fraud, a media Potemkin village, as former Ozy editor-at-large Eugene Robinson described it to Smith. On Friday evening, the company announced that it was shutting down.

If the company had merely been an empty shell propped up to lure positive publicity and venture-capital dollars, it likely would have been less alarming than the apparent reality. According to the five former Ozy staffers Intelligencer spoke with, what’s remarkable isn’t how little there was behind the façade but how much. These staffers say that founder and CEO Carlos Watson’s demands, expectations, and plans were often detached from reality, yet were enforced with an intensity that some felt bordered on cruelty. They describe throwing themselves into the challenge, often at the expense of their mental health, even as the company failed over and over to gain popularity with the public.

“It’s an incredible dereliction that speaks to a great tragedy,” says Ozy’s former editor-at-large Eugene Robinson. Continue reading New York: ‘It Was Weird and Culty’: Carlos Watson’s Mismanagement of Ozy

Men’s Journal: Tether Is a Trail of Shady Deals and Shattered Promises. Too Bad Cryptocurrency Now Depends on It

CAS PIANCEY could feel his heart pounding as the elevator doors slid open onto a tiled corridor of the eighth floor of the K Wah Centre. He was sweat-grimed and wrung out after a day of scouring Hong Kong for traces of a mysterious corporate entity. This was his final stop. Ahead lay a door marked “Proxy CPA Co. Ltd.” Piancey reached for the buzzer, then paused. What if the people he was chasing were really here—and understood what he was after?

It was September 2018, and Piancey, a cryptocurrency journalist, had flown from Los Angeles on a hunch. (“Piancey” is a pseudonym; doxxing is an occupational hazard best conducted anonymously.) He suspected that a handful of very clever and not particularly scrupulous people had come up with a way to create money in any quantity at the stroke of a keyboard—artificial electronic dollar bills that could be swapped for the real stuff. If he was right, these people were pulling off the swindle of a lifetime, a scam that would dwarf Bernie Madoff’s Ponzi scheme. If he was wrong, he owed some serious apologies.

Piancey pressed the buzzer. A Chinese woman in her 40s appeared. “Hello, can I help you?”

“I’m looking for Tether. This is the listed address. Is this Tether?”

“No, no,” she shook her head. “I have never heard of Tether. Sorry.” She disappeared.

And there it was. A company that supposedly held $3 billion in assets didn’t have a real office. Continue reading Men’s Journal: Tether Is a Trail of Shady Deals and Shattered Promises. Too Bad Cryptocurrency Now Depends on It

New York: Why Belarus Grounding of Ryanair Flight Broke International Law

Belarus’s use of deception and military threat to waylay a Ryanair flight Sunday and detain a prominent journalist critical of the country’s dictator was a clear-cut violation of international aviation law, legal experts say. “This was a case of state-sponsored hijacking … state-sponsored piracy,” said Ryanair CEO Michael O’Leary.

Ryanair flight 4978 was transiting Belarus airspace en route from Athens to Vilnius, Lithuania, when, according to the airline, air-traffic controllers told the flight crew that there was a bomb aboard and asked them to land in the capital, Minsk. A MiG-29 fighter jet dispatched to intercept the flight added weight to the request. Upon landing, 26-year-old Roman Protasevich, was removed from the plane and taken into custody.

“International law obviously prohibits the use of armed force against commercial aircraft,” says aviation attorney Arthur Rosenberg. The International Civil Aviation Organization “has standards governing the interception of commercial aircraft by the military.”

ICAO, an agency of the U.N., was established by an international agreement called the Chicago Convention on International Civil Aviation in 1944. The Chicago Convention is the foundational document of international aviation law and has been ratified by virtually every country on Earth, including Belarus. It specifically prohibits the use of military force against passenger flights, stating: “The contracting States recognize that every State must refrain from resorting to the use of weapons against civil aircraft in flight.” There are situations in which a state can use force against a civil aircraft, such as self-defense, or if a plane violates its airspace without permission, but neither applies in this case. Continue reading New York: Why Belarus Grounding of Ryanair Flight Broke International Law

Why Were the Ukrainians Aboard MH370? UPDATED

Within a few months of the disappearance of MH370 I began investigating why a Russian and two Ukrainians were on the plane, as I’ve previously described here and here.

I quickly learned that the two men jointly owned a furniture company in Odessa, Ukraine called Nika Mebel. The company started a website around June, 2013, that retailed furniture it made in its own factory. Within a few months it added furniture imported from China and Malaysia. On the site the company described itself like this: “Continuous improvement of technological equipment and staff training helped us grow into a large furniture manufacturing company in Ukraine….  Over a 15-year period of time, we managed to make ourselves known on most of the territory of Ukraine, as well as beyond its borders.”

In an affadavit filed in 2017 as part of her effort to have her husband declared legally dead, Tatiana Chustrak stated that:

“In the court session it was established that the applicant’s husband was engaged in private business, namely, with his friend and business partner, Deineka Sergey Grigorievich, had a shop for furniture production.
March 02, 2014, a man, along with a partner, went on a business trip abroad. The purpose of the trip was to visit the international furniture exhibition in Kuala Lumpur, the capital of Malaysia, and on March 8, it was planned to fly to Beijing Airport, China, and then fly to Guangzhou, China, where an international furniture exhibition was also planned. According to this plan, the relevant tickets were purchased.”

I hired researchers in Ukraine and asked them to reach out to Dmitriy Kozlov, the manager of Nika Mebel. I figured that he’d have detailed knowledge of the trip, because according to Nika Mebel’s filings he was the only person authorized to operate the company apart from Chustrak and Deineka — in effect, for years after their disappearance, he was Nika Mebel.

My investigators reported back to me: Continue reading Why Were the Ukrainians Aboard MH370? UPDATED

New York: Michael Cohen on How ‘Monster’ Trump Will Undermine Biden

Back in February 2019, President Trump’s longtime personal lawyer Michael Cohen declared at a House Oversight Committee hearing that if Trump were to lose the 2020 election, “there will never be a peaceful transition of power.” Years of service as Trump’s bagman and consigliere — including participation in crimes that landed Cohen in prison with a three-year sentence — had provided him unique insight into the thoughts of the man he once called the Boss. With that in mind, New York asked Cohen to interpret Trump’s ongoing election meltdown.

Is there a strategy behind the tantrum Trump has been throwing since November 3? 
It’s all a shameless con job. He sees his claims of fraud as driving up donations — there’s nothing behind it beyond greed. Trump is using the moment to raise money. The number is actually shockingly large, over $150 million, a majority of it from small-dollar donations. This money is not going to his Election Defense Fund; it’s to keep him relevant in the GOP and launch his media brand. It’s all about money and power, and you need one to get the other.

Does he really believe massive election fraud took place?
There is that part of him that cannot accept losing. In his mind, the only way Biden could have won is through fraud. He has convinced himself of a narrative and is being fed back what he wants to hear from sycophants. The only one of these scumbags who truly believes this crap is Sidney Powell, but she is legitimately insane. Continue reading New York: Michael Cohen on How ‘Monster’ Trump Will Undermine Biden