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Defense & Security
Vladimir Putin at United Russia congress

Russia's fateful triangle

by FAES Analysis Group

The news of the death of Alexei Navalny, a symbol of the political opposition to Vladimir Putin's regime, in a prison 60 kilometers from the Arctic Circle, has shocked Western public opinion, but comes as no surprise. Since coming to power in 2000, Putin has resorted to the physical elimination of his political opponents as a tool to stay in power and terrorize the opposition. First he used it against the oligarchs who enriched themselves during Boris Yeltsin's two presidential terms. Then journalists, such as Anna Politovskaya, who criticized him and reported on the Chechen war, were murdered. Then Boris Nemtsov on the Kremlin bridge in 2015, while numerous other opposition politicians were imprisoned. Since the beginning of the war in Ukraine, several people who opposed the invasion have "committed suicide". Navalny, who had already in 2020 been poisoned with novichok, a chemical nerve agent to whose use only high-ranking government or military officials can have access, had defined Putin's United Russia party as that "of criminals and thieves". He was also the driving force behind the massive anti-regime demonstrations during the winter of 2011-2012 (the largest so far), over alleged electoral fraud in regional elections. The most defiant figure to Putin's regime, Navalny has paid with his life for the one message he insisted on sending to Russians: that they should fight for freedom. Navalny's death is yet another symptom of what is really happening in Putin's Russia. The next presidential elections will be held March 15-17. Putin is certain to win them. The disappearance of the political opposition to the Russian regime has not translated into a mass protest of the population nor - more importantly - into a vote against the government. Boris Nadezdin, baptized by Western journalists as "the candidate for peace" will not be able to run in the elections because the Russian Supreme Court has upheld the decision, taken by the Central Electoral Commission, to invalidate 100,000 signatures endorsing his candidacy, under the generic pretext of "irregularities". Nadezdin advocates an immediate truce and a transition to peace negotiations in trilateral format involving Russia, Ukraine and the West. According to him, the decision on the fate of the territories annexed by Russia should be based on the will of the people who lived there before the conflict. The war in Ukraine, now entering its third year, is the cause of the breakdown of relations between Russia and the West and Russia's growing dependence on the "axis of the sanctioned" (North Korea, Iran and China). Ukraine is losing on the battlefield due to lack of ammunition and war fatigue affecting both its own population and its allies. The prospect of Donald Trump's victory in November this year further darkens its future, as NATO countries will not be able to overcome an eventual suspension of U.S. military aid to Ukraine, as the alliance's secretary general has warned. The war is turning into a competition between the Western and Russian military industries. If Europe does not wake up, Ukraine and its allies will lose everything that Kiev has so far gained, thus fulfilling Russia's goal of turning its neighboring country into a failed state. The Western allies had managed to provide Ukraine with significant political, military and economic support during the two years of war. However, it is not so clear that they are prepared for a long war nor for the containment and deterrence of Russia, although it is well known that investing in deterrence is always cheaper than investing in open warfare. Navalny's death, Putin's electoral victory and the long duration of the war in Ukraine are the fateful triangle that the Kremlin now opposes to the West, a triangle strengthened by the shameful silence of the majority of the Russian population, a silence that is a consequence of the tyranny and information manipulation carried out by the regime, but also of its political apathy.

Defense & Security
The flag of PMC

Russian Private Military Companies

by Pierre Boussel

President Vladimir Putin's promise to restore order in Russia following the Wagner mercenaries mutiny has been fulfilled. In just a few months, Yevgeny Prigozhin had been sidelined. The Kremlin regained control of the private security market to ensure that previous experiences – "clumsy", in Putin's words[1] – will not be repeated. The official line is now well-established. It claims that the issue of private military companies (PMCs) has never existed in Russia because these activities have never been legally regulated. And it implies that transparency is back and that Russian diplomacy's foreign operations on the African continent and in the Arab world are unconcealed. Since the 2010s, Russian private military companies have worked with regimes that came to power through armed insurrection (Central Republic of Africa, Niger, Mali) and have intervened in the Middle East, particularly in Syria. Mercenaryism has been an unresolved issue in Russia for almost a decade. The option of following the American model was rejected: it would not have been in keeping with Moscow's tradition to expose state security to the laws of the free market. Since the time of the Tsars, it has been accepted that any question of national security should be dealt with at the highest level in the Kremlin and nowhere else. When the Wagner company was established in 2014, the authorities did not interfere because of the relationship of trust that existed between President Putin and Prigozhin. The approach may have been illegal, but it had the merit of being realistic. The Russian army needs men. The days of Soviet-era overstaffing are over, and the security apparatus needs to be strengthened with manpower. The country also needs courage. Wagner has shown that far from bureaucratic red tape, a simple company of mercenaries can accompany Russian diplomacy in the Middle East and Africa, helping to increase its strategic depth. President Putin followed the Wagnerian dynamic by signing a decree [N°370-17.07.15] authorizing the creation of a mobilization reserve for his armed forces a year later. The BARS (Special Army Combat Reserve)[2] are nothing more than the reserve units that exist throughout the world. This would have been the end of the story, were it not for the fact that there is a grey area in this project, at least one that is specific to Russia. The BARS are not just battalions. Some have the financial backing of major Russian companies. Transneft, a wealthy oil pipeline construction and management company,[3] is the financial backer of the BARS-20 battalion, commanded by Sergei Dedov. Employees of the company, particularly security guards, were offered the chance to join the battalion as "volunteers" rather than "mercenaries" in return for a pay rise. Some were sent to fight in Ukraine. The exact number of deaths is unknown, but memorial videos are available on social networks.[4] The confusion was compounded when it emerged that the list of reserve units included private military companies (PMCs) such as Olkhone and Troie, which are legally banned but still listed for military intervention if necessary. A plan to legalize security companies was mooted in 2018 to address this discrepancy but was quickly rejected. Although the Kremlin made no official statement, it can be assumed that it wanted to retain control over these unregulated and highly lucrative activities – the Russian security market is worth billions of dollars[5] – while taking advantage of the operational ease of ambiguity. Legalization would have led to restrictions that would have hindered the operational flexibility needed in "grey" operations. Russia officially has 27 private military companies.[6] After the disappearance of Wagner's boss in a plane crash in June 2023, Moscow decided that all players in the security market, without exception or privilege, must register with the Ministry of Defense. As of 1 July, they must keep detailed records of their activities, as well as an inventory of their personnel and equipment.[7] Mercenaryism remains formally banned, unless the "volunteers" are part of a Russian army operation (Ukraine, Syria) or the men operate in close coordination with Kremlin’s diplomacy. In the event of a breach, security companies are liable to a fine and risk being dissolved. To show the public that nothing will be the same after the Wagner affair, Moscow launched a communications operation with the Chechen militia Akhmat, which has gone to the Defense Ministry to declare its activities. The Kremlin wants to send the message of a return to normality. Official semantics now speak of "volunteer units" rather than "mercenaries."[8] It trivializes the phenomenon by providing aid and support to "volunteers" deployed in foreign theaters. The Defenders of the Fatherland Foundation, headed by Anna Tsivileva and apparently set up under the aegis of the Russian Ministry of Defense, provides administrative and human support to soldiers returning from the front. Their injuries are considered and they are now receiving appropriate follow-up care. The Russian PMCs still exist, but they have fallen into line. State of Play The new map of Russian military companies is organized around an entity called Redut-Antiterror, also known as "R Centre" or "Redut." Its name is no coincidence. It refers to the Patriotic War of 1812, when the Russians halted the advance of Napoleon's armies using fortifications known as “redoubts.” These redoubts contributed to the defense of Moscow. At the outset, Redut was to be a security company like any other, no more and no less than a competitor to Wagner, which dominated the security market at the time. Redut was founded by billionaire Gennady Timchenko in 2006 or 2008, depending on the source,[9] a time when the fate of mercenary companies was being played out in Moscow's chic restaurants, at the tables of retired military officers, businessmen with links to the oligarchs and influential personalities who were able to obtain tacit approval from the Kremlin to carry out such activities. At first sight, Redut is nothing special. It's a simple PMC (private military companies). Its first employees were former soldiers from the 106th Airborne Division, the 56th Airborne Battalion, the 2nd Special Forces Brigade of the GRU (military intelligence) and the 173rd Special Forces. These are classic, experienced profiles often used to screen recruits. Redut recruits Russian citizens aged between 21 and 50, and the jobs on offer are varied: reconnaissance officers, Vasilek mortar gunners, snipers, medical instructors, logisticians, drivers, etc. Salaries vary between $1,300 and $1,900 per month when the mercenary works in Russia and can reach $5,000 in foreign operations.[10] Although this is slightly higher than what Wagner charges, it can be considered normal for this type of work. Redut is based in Kubinka, near Moscow, next to the 45th Brigade of the Russian Armed Forces. This is where the mercenaries train. But on closer examination, Redut is not a PMC like the others. It defines itself as a "military-professional union." This may seem like an odd name, as it brings together two antinomic words, "military" and "union." But that's exactly what it is. At the very beginning, when Redut was founded, the idea was to create a collaborative organization that would unite Russia's PMCs in the same way that a trade union is a point of convergence for different companies. It was understood that each PMC would retain its autonomy, staff, hierarchy, and funding. By joining Redut, they agreed to work together on an ad hoc basis, pooling their human and material resources to carry out specific tasks. When the mission is over, everyone goes back to their own barracks. In the 2010s, this idea met with mixed success. At the time, Wagner dominated the security market thanks to generous subsidies. Prigozhin was in such a position of superiority that he didn't see the point of such an initiative. The fall of the Wagner empire brought the concept back into the limelight. The Kremlin has seen fit to promote the organizational model. It has three advantages: a) PMCs become allies in winning contracts rather than competitors; b) the risk of one company establishing a dominant position is virtually eliminated; c) the authorities simplify their chain of command. Should the Kremlin issue a request, for example, to recruit X new volunteers for the operation in Ukraine, it asks Redut, and they will come from the various Russian PMCs that have applied for the operation. A team of investigative journalists has uncovered this highly unusual organization, reminiscent of the "operations rooms" of armed groups in the Middle East. At the heart of the organization is Redut. Around Redut, the PMCs come and go. [11] They are classified by geographical origin, name, or company affiliation. This is a hodgepodge of disparate groups such as the Siberian Brigade, groups from the Don (Aksai Battalion), formations from the Union of Donbass Volunteers, Gazprom PMCs, and other small, virtually unknown groups such as the Borz Squad or the Imperial Legion. In the Field When a mercenary leaves his original PMC to join Redut, the "Military-Professional Union," he joins new units, which have common names: Ilimovtsy, Hooligans, Wolves, Marines, Axes.[12] The system is deliberately flexible and malleable, and therefore very opaque. It's hard to know who is who, who is fighting for what, who is operating under what identity. The administrative procedures are not clear either. Sometimes a mercenary who signs up to fight in Redut signs a contract on a sheet of paper bearing the abbreviation "RLSPI," the initials of the Laboratoire Régional de Recherches Sociales et Psychologiques. According to the investigative website Idel.Realities, the name is a cover for the secret activities of Unit 35555, which is linked to Russian military intelligence.[13] This labyrinth of truth and untruth, approximation, and mystery are parts of the Redut system. Some of the PMCs involved in the system are easily identifiable. This is the case of the Russian fossil fuel giant Gazprom, a strategic company that, in February 2023, created a private military company called Gazprom PMC, officially to protect its industrial infrastructure in Russia and abroad.[14] The details of the financial package are interesting. The main shareholders are PJSC Gazprom Neft (70% of the capital) and the private security company STAF-CENTER (30%), a company co-founded by former KGB officers Andrey Kuratov, Andrey Timofeev, and Andrey Gavrilov. Other PMCs are little known because they have only recently been created, such as the "Russian Volunteer Corps," which was created in Mariupol in February 2023.[15] This unit brings together fighters who support Russia's attack on Ukraine. There is also Convoy, founded in Crimea by Sergei Aksenov, which also fights to defend Russian interests. In the past, the life of a mercenary was a jealously guarded secret. Today, thanks to social networks, it is possible to find out about the daily life of these men, who belong to the most modest and certainly the most confidential of all private military companies. The Convoy Telegram channel describes the daily life of these men on the front line in Ukraine. Here are a few examples: 13.10.2022 A mercenary shoots a video presenting his kit bag. VIDEO. 14.10.2023 "Our fighters inflicted fire damage on the personnel and equipment of the 126th Armed Forces Defense Brigade in the Berislav region." 22.10.2023 An anonymous mercenary's birthday is celebrated with a photo. 25.10.2023 "Our fighters also struck exposed concentrations of enemy personnel in the areas of Aleshkinsky Island and the small railway bridge over the Dnieper. Enemy drones were shot down by Russian air defenses in the Peschanovka area. Over the past 24 hours, more than 110 shells have been fired by Ukrainian forces along the left bank of the Kherson region." To get a better idea of the profile of this type of mercenary, to "humanize" the fate of those men who decide one day to take up arms, it is worth taking a look at the case of "Shaman," alias David Honda, born in Khakassia, one of many mercenaries. His story reflects this new generation of Russian mercenaries.[16] When he applied to join Redut, he lied. David Honda claimed to have graduated from the Krasnoyarsk branch of the Higher Police School in 2004, but there was no such school that year. He explained that his non-Russian-sounding surname was given to him by the French Foreign Legion, where he claimed to have served. There is no indication that this information has been verified. Honda went to fight in Syria. He was sent to the outpost of the 23944 military unit in Khmeimim. This base is the nerve center of the Russian operation, commanded at the time by Colonel-General Alexander Zhuravlev. In 2019, the end of the Islamic State group's territorialization was accompanied by a reorganization of its spheres of influence, and there was much fighting. David Honda was killed in unknown circumstances on 15 June 2019, aged 42. A few weeks later, his body was returned to his family in a zinc coffin, accompanied by a certificate stating, "cerebral hemorrhage due to a fragmentation explosion." The document was signed by Syrian forensic doctors, Brigadier General Ghassan Ali Darwish and Brigadier General Shafik Abas, head of the Zaghi Azraq rehabilitation hospital. A Mysterious Commander While it is very clear that Redut operates under the authority of the Russian presidency and the Ministry of Defense, there are still doubts about the company's direction. Since August 2023, Russian sources have claimed that Andrey Troshev, a retired colonel and former executive director of Wagner PMC, has joined Redut's management team.[17] This choice, which has not been denied by Moscow, seems credible. The officer is no stranger. A veteran of the wars in Afghanistan and Chechnya, Troshev is a graduate of the military artillery school in Leningrad. He left the army in 2012 to join Prigozhin's team. He was decorated with the “Hero of Russia,” the country's highest award. If confirmed, the appointment would be a shrewd move. It would weaken the current management of Wagner, who no longer has the scent of Putin's sanctity about it, and would strengthen the management skills of Redut, who is now the Kremlin's point man on "volunteer" or "mercenary" issues, depending on your point of view. What is certain is that Vladimir Putin and Andrey Troshev know each other, as newsreels and photographs taken in the Kremlin during an official ceremony confirm. Wagner's setbacks did not interrupt the meetings. On 29 September 2023, Troshev was officially hosted at the presidential palace. Putin gave him a mission: "You will be responsible for training volunteer battalions capable of carrying out various combat missions, especially in the area of the 'special military operation' [in Ukraine]." According to Dmitri Polyansky, Russia's permanent representative to the UN, Redut receives no state support.[18] The statement is very clear about there being no direct or indirect link. However, several sources indicate the opposite. In July 2022, a recruiter with the call sign "Kibarda" working at the Trigulyai (Tambov) training center stated that "Redut is a company of the Main Intelligence Directorate."[19] The usually well-informed Russian researcher Anton Mardasov has obtained information that tends to confirm the existence of organic links between Russian military intelligence and Redut. An investigative article by the Warbook journalism platform agrees. It argues that Redut is "fully controlled by the Main Directorate of the General Staff of the Russian Armed Forces."[20] There is every reason to believe that the Kremlin has reorganized the private military sector based on cold analysis: Wagner was not all doom and gloom. The break came not from mercenary activities but from a leadership position that the iconoclast Prigozhin was intoxicated by. Like any intelligence officer, President Putin had his "return from experience." Ultimately, the Wagner case had the merit of being a caricature that showed the Kremlin what it had to give up and what it had to keep being in a position to make the best possible contribution to Russian influence. The man responsible for transferring the contracts between Wagner and Redut is the Deputy Defense Minister, Yunusbek Yevkurov.[21] This summer he travelled to Libya and sub-Saharan Africa (Mali, Niger, Burkina Faso) to persuade the regimes to cancel their original security contracts and turn to Redut. The aim is to achieve a gradual and smooth transition. The regimes visited are fragile, either in a situation of latent civil war or victims of recurrent armed uprisings. Russian diplomacy must be tactful; otherwise, China's PMCs, which are as discreet as they are ambitious, will take advantage of Russia's retreat to gain new market share. Above all, Moscow does not want to give up Wagner's business network in Africa, where security has become more lucrative as the UN and Western forces have reduced their military footprint. When the Wagner empire was at its height, it had 5,000 men in Africa. Business was booming. Estimates put revenues from its mining empire at US$250 million between 2018 and 2020.[22] The company has developed a sprawling presence in every lucrative sector of the economy. In addition to mining and security, Wagner has used its address book to open unexpected markets. In 2021, for example, a company linked to Prigozhin's interests was awarded a lucrative logging concession in the Central African Republic (CAR). The company, Bois Rouge, was granted the right to exploit 186,000 hectares of forest that is home to protected species.[23] Since then, Central African timber exports to the EU have increased by 62 percent, to 11 million euro.[24] The most important country for Russia in the Middle East is Syria, where Wagner's men have long been present. According to Russian sources, Moscow offered Bashar al-Assad's regime to write off its debt to Wagner if it agreed to trust Redut and use its security services. In the absence of an authentic source, it is impossible for now to know whether Damascus responded positively or negatively. But Redut has real arguments for making its voice heard in Damascus and winning back contracts. It knows the Syrian theater, where it was identified in 2019. Its mercenaries have secured the Stroytransgaz gas installations.[25] Since the regime owes its survival to the Russian intervention in 2015, it would have no interest in persisting in working with a now disgraced PMC. The pressure is on the shoulders of Wagner's new directors as they try to preserve all or part of the company's heritage. Yevgeny Prigozhin's son Pavel is working with security chief Mikhail Vatanin to keep the group going, but it's not easy. There is a real possibility that the group will disintegrate. In addition to the loss of valuable officers such as Andrey Troshev, who was recruited by Redut to lead the group, mercenaries are leaving the PMC. Men from the 1st Assault Battalion have reportedly already signed so-called resubordinating contracts to join the Federal Service of National Guards of the Russian Federation (Rosgvardiya).[26] The problem of the viability of Wagner's mercenary activities may eventually be resolved. His overall business volume has already taken a hit. In 2022, his revenues fell from US$25 million to US$6.7 million.[27] Although its laws prohibit mercenaryism, Moscow hopes that the Redut "volunteers" will eventually establish themselves as trusted interlocutors of the Kremlin, without fear of mutiny, including in African and Arab countries where Russia has influence. The idea is to trivialize the phenomenon of auxiliary forces, mercenaries or not, so that they become part of the norm. The Russian press has finally gotten used to this new focus. The very official – and once feared – Pravda reports on it daily. The information is presented not as scoops but as banal events: "Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu's private military company (PMC) Patriot, in competition with Yevgeny Prigozhin's PMC Wagner, has been spotted near Vuhledar in the Donetsk region."[28] For its part, the tabloid press is supporting the movement by announcing the creation of the Borz battalion by Redut, for example. Its only distinguishing feature is that it recruits women for combat roles such as snipers, drone operators and so on.[29] Conclusion The reorganization of the security sector seems to have been inspired by an old Russian proverb: "In a united herd, there is no need to fear the wolf." Vladimir Putin has closed the ranks of the PMCs to maintain full use of the famous "grey zone" that states are so fond of using for parallel diplomacy. Thus, when the Deputy Defense Minister, Yunusbek Yevkurov, visited Libya this summer, he added to the Redut dossier the fate of the ports of Benghazi and Tobruk, where the Russian navy intends to make technical stops with the aim to prevent the Turks from taking eastern Libya's maritime infrastructure. The idea is to play down the "shadow soldiers" issue, to strip it of its fictional substance, to give it a simple transactional value, so that Redut is no more and no less than an additional package line that Moscow is offering its partner countries.   REFERENCES [1] “Putin said that there are no PMCs in Russia,” RIA (ru.), October 5, 2023. [2] "Why is former Wagner PMC chief of staff Troshev known and why did Putin meet him?” Crimea.Realii (Ukr), September 30, 2023, [4] Video on the Russian social network VK, [6] “Catalog of Russian PMCs: 37 private military companies of the Russian Federation,” Molfar, 2023, [8] “Private military companies required to sign contracts with the defense ministry,” Asia Plus, June 12, 2023, [10] “'La Redoute' to replace 'Wagner': what do we know about this PMC and its leader?,” The Ftimes (Ru), September 5, 2023, [13] “Who's Who Among Russia's Mercenary Companies,” RFE/RL's Idel.Realities, May 23, 2023. [14] “Russian Gazprom creates its own PMC - intelligence,” Pravda (Ru), February 7, 2023, [16] “Without “Shield” - Service and death in another private military company, which does not officially exist in Russia,” Novaya Gazeta (Ru), July 29, 2019, [18] Svetlana Kazimirova, “Which company will replace the Wagnerians in the Northern Military Region: what is Redut PMC, what does it do, when did it appear and who runs it?,” Vesiskitim (Ru), September 5, 2023, [21] “Haftar discusses situation in Libya with Russian defence command. Discussions focused on the future of 'Wagner',” CNN (Ar) September 27, 2023, [23] “Prigozhin structures received 200,000 hectares of forest in Africa,” Activatica (Ru), July 22, 2022, [27] “Wagner fractures in Syria, Libya amid conflict with Russia's Defense Ministry,” Al Monitor, October 1, 2023, [29] Anastasia Korotkova, "Created for much more than soups and children." Russian women began to be recruited into combat specialities to take part in the war,” Storage Googleapis, October 23, 2023,

Remembering of Alexei Navalny in Berlin at the Russian Embassy

Alexei Navalny had a vision of a democratic Russia. That terrified Vladimir Putin to the core

by Robert Horvath

Alexei Navalny was a giant figure in Russian politics. No other individual rivalled the threat he posed to the Putin regime. His death in an Arctic labour camp is a blow to all those who dreamed he might emerge as the leader of a future democratic Russia. What made Navalny so important was his decision to become an anti-corruption crusader in 2008. Using shareholder activism and his popular blog, he shone a spotlight on the corruption schemes that enabled officials to steal billions from state-run corporations. His breakthrough came in 2011, when he proposed the strategy of voting for any party but President Vladimir Putin’s “party of crooks and thieves” in the Duma (parliament) elections. Faced with a collapse of support, the regime resorted to widespread election fraud. The result was months of pro-democracy protests. Putin regained control through a mix of concessions and repression, but the crisis signalled Navalny’s emergence as the dominant figure in Russia’s democratic movement. Despite being convicted on trumped-up embezzlement charges, he was allowed to run in Moscow’s mayoral elections in 2013. In a clearly unfair contest, which included police harassment and hostile media coverage, he won 27% of the vote. Perseverance in the face of worsening attacks The authorities learned from this mistake. Never again would Navalny be allowed to compete in elections. What the Kremlin failed to stop was his creation of a national movement around the Foundation for the Struggle Against Corruption (FBK), which he had founded in 2011 with a team of brilliant young activists. During the ensuing decade, FBK transformed our understanding of the nature of Putin’s kleptocracy. Its open-source investigations shattered the reputations of numerous regime officials, security functionaries and regime propagandists. One of the most important was a 2017 exposé of the network of charities that funded the palaces and yachts of then-premier Dmitry Medvedev. Viewed 46 million times on YouTube, it triggered protests across Russia. No less significant was Navalny’s contribution to the methods of pro-democracy activism. To exploit the regime’s dependence on heavily manipulated elections, he developed a strategy called “intelligent voting”. The basic idea was to encourage people to vote for the candidates who had the best chance of defeating Putin’s United Russia party. The result was a series of setbacks for United Russia in 2019 regional elections. One measure of Navalny’s impact was the intensifying repression directed against him. As prosecutors tried to paralyse him with a series of implausible criminal cases, they also pursued his family. His younger brother Oleg served three and a half years in a labour camp on bogus charges. This judicial persecution was compounded by the violence of the regime’s proxies. Two months after exposing Medvedev’s corruption, Navalny was nearly blinded by a Kremlin-backed gang of vigilantes, who sprayed his face with a noxious blend of chemicals. More serious was the deployment of a death squad from Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB), which had kept Navalny under surveillance since 2017. The use of the nerve agent Novichok to poison Navalny during a trip to the Siberian city of Tomsk in August 2020 was clearly intended to end his challenge to Putin’s rule. Instead it precipitated the “Navalny crisis”, a succession of events that shook the regime’s foundations. The story of Navalny’s survival – and confirmation that he had been poisoned with Novichok – focused international attention on the Putin regime’s criminality. Any lingering doubts about state involvement in his poisoning were dispelled by Navalny’s collaboration with Bellingcat, an investigative journalism organisation, to identify the suspects and deceive one of them into revealing how they poisoned him. The damage was magnified by Navalny’s decision to confront Putin’s personal corruption. In a powerful two-hour documentary film, A Palace for Putin, Navalny chronicled the obsessive greed that had transformed an obscure KGB officer into one of the world’s most notorious kleptocrats. With over 129 million views on YouTube alone, the film shattered the dictator’s carefully constructed image as the incarnation of traditional virtues. ‘We will fill up the jails and police vans’ It is difficult to exaggerate the impact of the “Navalny crisis” on Putin, a dictator terrified of the prospect of popular revolution. No longer was he courted by Western leaders. US President Joe Biden began his term in office in 2021 by endorsing an interviewer’s description of Putin as a “killer”. To contain the domestic fallout, Putin unleashed a crackdown that began with Navalny’s 2021 arrest on his return to Moscow from Germany, where had been recovering from the Novichok poisoning. On the international stage, Putin secured a summit with Biden by staging a massive deployment of military force on the Ukrainian border, a rehearsal for the following year’s invasion. The Kremlin’s trolling factories also tried to destroy Navalny’s reputation with a smear campaign. Within weeks of Navalny’s imprisonment, Amnesty International rescinded his status as a “prisoner of conscience” on the basis of allegations about hate speech. The evidence was some ugly statements made by Navalny as an inexperienced politician in the mid-2000s, when he was trying to build an anti-Putin alliance of democrats and nationalists. What his detractors ignored was Navalny’s own evolution into a critic of ethnonationalist prejudices. In a speech to a nationalist rally in 2011, he had challenged his listeners to empathise with people in the Muslim-majority republics of Russia’s northern Caucasus region. This divergence from the nationalist mainstream was accentuated by Putin’s conflict with Ukraine. After the invasion of Crimea in March 2014, Navalny denounced the “imperialist annexation” as a cynical effort to distract the masses from corruption. Eight years later, while languishing in prison, he condemned Putin’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, exhorting his compatriots to take to the streets, saying: If, to prevent war, we need to fill up the jails and police vans, we will fill up the jails and police vans. Later that year, he argued a post-Putin Russia needed an end to the concentration of power in the Kremlin and the creation of a parliamentary republic as “the only way to stop the endless cycle of imperial authoritarianism”. Navalny’s tragedy is that he never had a chance to convert the moral authority he amassed during years as a dissident into political power. Like Charles de Gaulle in France and Nelson Mandela in South Africa, he might have become a redemptive leader, leading his people from war and tyranny to the promised land of a freer society. Instead, he has left his compatriots the example of a brave, principled and thoughtful man, who sacrificed his life for the cause of democracy and peace. That is his enduring legacy.

Defense & Security
Map of the Baltic States with Russia and Belarus

The Baltic Defense Line

by Lukas Milevski

The three Baltic states jointly announced on Jan. 19, 2024, their intention to build a defensive line along their borders with Russia and Belarus. Initial details are scarce. The defensive line will not include coastal defenses — Baltic coasts will be defended against the Russian Baltic Sea Fleet in other ways, such as anti-ship missile capabilities and sea mines. Estonia, which divulged the greatest amount of detail, estimated that it would build 600 bunkers, together with support points and distribution lines, for a cost of €60 million starting in 2025. There are no plans to place mines, barbed wire, or dragon’s teeth (anti-tank defenses) during peacetime, although the necessary supplies are anticipated to be held in local reserve for quick deployment if and when necessary. At the very least, Estonia also anticipates some difficulties in situating bunkers on private land near the border, which will take time and negotiation with potentially thousands of landowners to resolve. A Baltic defensive line is a huge project. It is worth reflecting on its origins, challenges, and operational-strategic implications. The Baltic ministers of defense identified two primary points of origin for such a defensive line. First is NATO’s communiqué from the 2023 Madrid Summit, which confirmed that the alliance would fight for every meter of its ground. The proposed defensive line reflects a Baltic intention to take this pledge seriously. Second, the Baltic defense ministers also pointed to their lack of substantial geographical depth. The Baltic states believe that they cannot give up ground, which means recognizing that they need to be prepared to contest a Russian invasion from the first moments following the violation of Baltic borders. An obvious third point may also be added: In the face of Russian genocidal atrocities in Ukraine, Baltic governments cannot be seen to be abandoning their populations to the Russians, nor do they want to do so. In Ukraine, the Russians have committed multiple known mass murders (such as at Bucha and Izyum), they have kidnapped children and fast-tracked their adoption and citizenship in Russia, and they are already settling new colonizers on occupied land, especially in the cities. Any one of these is fundamentally unacceptable, and Russia is actively pursuing all three. For the Baltic states, giving up land means giving up people — especially for Estonia and Lithuania, which have substantial population centers on or not far from the border, such as Narva and Vilnius. In this specific regard, Latvia is slightly better placed as its easternmost province of Latgale is also one of the most sparsely populated, with an overall population density of 46 per square mile. Challenges for the defensive line are substantial. First are the lengths of each national border. Estonia’s hostile border is the shortest at 183 miles, most of which is covered by Lakes Peipus and Pihkva or strengthened by the Narva River. Latvia’s borders with Russia and Belarus are 133 and 107 miles, respectively, bereft of natural boundaries. Lithuania’s borders are the longest, reaching nearly 422 miles with Belarus and nearly 171 miles with Russia’s Kaliningrad oblast. These are substantial distances. Estonia’s planned 600 bunkers, likely to be concentrated on the 129 miles of border north and south of Lake Peipus, suggest a density of four to five bunkers per linear mile — yet defensive lines are not simply built linearly but also in depth. Nonetheless, Latvia would need to build 1,116 bunkers and Lithuania 2,758 at similar densities. Bunkers are stationary objects whose effectiveness decreases the better their exact positions are known. The defensive line is likely to incur a challenge to Baltic counterintelligence to prevent Russia from identifying bunker locations in overly substantial detail. However, bunker density is unlikely to be consistent along the entire combined Baltic border as not every part of the border is equally useful for Russian invasion, which necessarily requires roads and railways. Again, Estonia is best placed. North of Lake Peipus, there is only a single crossing point over the Narva River at Narva itself, although there are roads on the Russian side of the river that would enable some degree of near-and even cross-river Russian logistical sustainment. South of Lake Peipus are two major roads and one rail crossing, but also a handful of minor cross-border roads could be used to distribute advancing Russian forces across a broader front. Latvia has one rail and two major road crossings apiece with both Russia and Belarus, along with at least a handful of minor roads directly crossing the border and other Russian roads leading to or running alongside the border. Lithuania has two rail crossings apiece with both Russia and Belarus, along with up to seven major road crossings, two with Russia and five with Belarus, besides various minor roads as well. These are places where bunkers are likely to be concentrated. It is unrealistic to sustain major operations nearly, if not actually, totally off-road. The final challenge is bunker placement in a tactical sense. It seems unlikely for bunkers to be within line of sight from the far side of the Baltic borders, merely giving Russians a chance to scout them during peacetime without danger or even controversy. Higher ground is generally more tactically advantageous than lower ground, and bunkers positioned to generate enfilading fire and be mutually supporting rather than isolated from one another are preferable. While Russian logistical demands lead to a focus on roads and rail, the same is true for Baltic and NATO forces; units fighting on the defensive line have to be logistically sustained as well. These are all lower-level details that will be crucial to the success of the defensive line in case of actual invasion. Finally, what are the operational-strategic implications of the defensive line once it is built? First, it runs counter to the doctrinally preferred Western — and especially American — defensive posture, which is an operationally elastic defense premised upon maneuver warfare. In maneuver defense, terrain (and, by implication, the people populating that terrain) is not valued highly in an operational sense; the land is to be given up if necessary and then recaptured later in the course of counterattacks. The main premise is to engineer the best circumstances in which to destroy advancing enemy forces with as disproportionately few friendly losses as possible, all other considerations being secondary at best. A good in-depth defense premised on bunkers and trenches may provide tactical elasticity, but it clearly identifies operational elasticity as undesirable. There is clear incompatibility here, and in this Baltic case, NATO has politically positioned itself in a way that will require some sort of move away from maneuver defense, at least on a major geographical scale. An orientation toward an operationally static, even if in practice tactically elastic, defense will put emphasis on fires into the Russian rear and deep to attrite Russian forces and damage Russian logistics so that they experience difficulties deploying forces opposite the defensive line itself, let alone directly attacking it. Yet Western political leaders may be squeamish about such attacks — witness their present injunctions against Ukraine’s use of Western weapons against targets in Russia itself. The damage Russia has sustained inside its own borders suggests that the West’s fear of escalation is overblown and, given the combination of regime control over the media and the Russian population’s own considerable apathy, constant scenes of savaged Russian convoys and destroyed Russian transport infrastructure in Russia itself may contribute to turning the Russian population against a hypothetically ongoing Russian attempt to invade the Baltic states. Latvian, Lithuanian, and Estonian purchases of HIMARS rocket launchers and ATACMS (long-range, guided missiles with a range of up to 300 kilometers) demonstrate that the Baltic states are at least serious about having the capability to strike deep. However, in the event of a major Russian invasion, Baltic artillery, and emerging multiple-launch rocket system arsenals — the HIMARS the Baltic states have ordered from the United States — would be unlikely to sustain such interdiction for long. The ultimate hope is that the increasing preparedness of the Baltic states and the wider alliance to fight Russia, among which the construction of the Baltic defense line would be counted, would be sufficient to convince the Kremlin to be deterred. Neither the Baltic states nor the West as a whole has any direct control over the outcome of such a decision. At best, all it can do is present an intimidating picture of negative consequences for Russia to consider. If and when the Baltic defense line is completed, the prospect of denying Russia plausible victory in the Baltic theater in a war against NATO should be stronger and may weigh heavier on the minds of Russian decision-makers. Unfortunately, we can almost never know for sure, as there is no way to know why someone has not done something — deterred, never interested, or is it simply not time yet? The Baltic defensive line is a totally logical response to the particular geostrategic challenges Balts face against Russia, even though it will incentivize ways of fighting against Russians with which, for varying reasons, their Western allies may find themselves tactically, operationally, strategically, or even politically uncomfortable. However, preferred Western alternatives — maneuvering defense and possibly limiting strikes into Russia — would be politically, strategically, operationally, and tactically counterproductive for a NATO that fights against Russia on the eastern flank. The Baltic defensive line should nonetheless contribute to a geostrategic picture of denying the prospect of victory in the Baltic, which will hopefully help induce Russia to choose to be deterred. The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Foreign Policy Research Institute, a non-partisan organization that seeks to publish well-argued, policy-oriented articles on American foreign policy and national security priorities.

Defense & Security
Russian and Iranian flags on matching puzzle pieces

Increased Iran-Russia Military Cooperation After the Ukraine Invasion: Impact of US/Western Sanctions

by Ian Dudgeon

Iran and Russia have entered a closer political, economic, and military relationship during the past two years, the trigger widely seen as the upsurge in defence cooperation following Russia’s full invasion of Ukraine in February 2022. This new relationship, described variously as a strategic alignment or strategic partnership, was seen by both Tehran and Moscow as necessary to meet mutual and separate critical national needs due to the restrictive effects on both of US and Western sanctions. Iran’s international affairs, since its 1979 Islamic revolution, have been largely shaped by two factors. The first is Iran’s strong adherence to national autonomy, maximum self-sufficiency, and non-alignment. The latter has included, as far as practical, a balance between East and West, or today, Global South and Global West. However, Iranians are cautious about trusting others. While, therefore, a strategic alignment with Russia, or potentially others, could be acceptable, a formal alliance that compromise’s autonomy, would not. The second factor is Iran’s relationship with the US, and in turn with Europe, other Western countries and the UN, and their use of sanctions to deter or change international adversarial differences. Iran-US relations since Iran’s 1979 Islamic revolution have been tense and conflicted, and especially with Iranian-supported regional state and non-state militia. Major US concerns include Iran’s support for “state and non-state terrorism,” human rights abuses, missile development, and their potential, some say intent, to develop a nuclear weapons capability. Decades of broadly-based US sanctions, along with EU and UN sanctions, the latter mostly nuclear related, have strongly impacted the nation. The one short period of Iran-US rapprochement commenced in 2016 when President Barack Obama successfully brought Iran onboard as a signatory to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (the JCPOA) or nuclear agreement. Obama’s aim was to firstly resolve the nuclear issue and use this as the stepping-stone to negotiations on other regional security issues. But this two-step process was undone by President Donald Trump‘s 2018 decision to unilaterally withdraw from the JCPOA and reimpose US primary and secondary sanctions. Trump’s action, and President Joe Biden’s subsequent “failure” to rejoin the JCPOA and repeal related US sanctions, bitterly disappointed a large cast of international stakeholders, including Iran’s moderates and other JCPOA signatories. For Iran, the US could not be trusted to seriously seek rapprochement and repeal US sanctions either before, or foreseeably after, this year’s US presidential elections. This distrust extended also to the Europeans and others who would continue to remain subject to US secondary sanctions. Iran saw its future fundamentally with countries that were willing to openly trade with them, notwithstanding US sanctions, and other countries or organisations that were prepared to overlook or actively circumvent or evade sanctions. Multilateral outreach included Iran joining two major non-aligned groups in 2023, the SCO (Shanghai Cooperation Organisation) and BRICS+6 (Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa + 6). These comprise some 40 percent and 46 percent respectively of the world’s population, and some 20 percent and 30 percent of global GDP. BRICS also includes some 40 percent of global oil production. Key members of both include Russia, China, and India. Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Egypt are part of the “+6 members” of BRICS, and are also Dialogue Partners of the SCO. Both organisations offer significant additional political and economic networking opportunities and economic options. Bilaterally, the relationship between Tehran and Moscow, from its imperialist Shah/Tsar and post-revolutionary Iran and USSR/Russia iterations to the late 1980s, has had its share of tensions and conflict, including territorial disputes. The past 30-year period from the early 1990s to 2021, however, has been relatively stable. Geographic proximity, including a maritime border across the Caspian Sea, facilitated a significant increase in trade, reportedly from some US$1 billion in 2005 to US$3.3 billion in 2021. Mutual security interests also saw an increase in regional military cooperation, including joint operations against ISIS in Syria, and increased Russian sales of military equipment to Iran. The relationship changed significantly in early 2022 due to Russia’s increased military equipment needs, and to help offset the broad impact of sanctions imposed by the US, the EU, and others on Russia in response to its invasion of Ukraine. Militarily, increased Iranian defence sales to Russia have included a range of munitions, UAV (unmanned aerial vehicles) systems, and potentially Iranian short range ballistic missiles (SRBMs). The UAV deal includes the construction of a factory for manufacturing thousands of Iranian drones in Russia’s Tartarstan province. In return Russia has sold, or agreed to sell, to Iran a range of advanced weapons systems, including the S-400 air-defence missile, helicopters, and SU 34 fighters. Enhanced cyber and satellite cooperation was also agreed. Russia has also passed to Iran many of the high technology Western weapons systems captured in Ukraine, enabling Iran to evaluate, copy, and develop counter-measures. Significantly, this new level of Iranian-Russian cooperation has lifted the military capability of both, with implications for the Middle East and Ukraine respectively. But how effective have the sanctions been? Iran has been subject to harsh sanctions since 1979, and developed a “resistance economy” involving official and extensive unofficial trade and financing arrangements. Because many related statistics are unreliable or unavailable, official GDP estimates may be highly inaccurate. Importantly, however, and despite fluctuations, the World Bank shows a consistent decline in Iran’s GDP since 1979. For Russia, due to shifting markets and higher prices for oil since early 2022, their GDP contracted some 2 percent only that year compared to a prediction of more than 11 percent, and has mostly recovered since. Economically, despite the challenges of sanctions, bilateral cooperation is strong, both economies still function, and their governments remain stable. Militarily, sanctions have facilitated closer cooperation between Iran and Russia, contrary to US, NATO, and allied interests. Are there areas for the US to negotiate the lifting of sanctions with Iran and Russia? US priorities for Iran could include rejoining the JCPOA, facilitating a reduction or cessation of state and non-state militia attacks against regional Israeli, US, and related maritime targets, and restricting specified military cooperation with Russia. US priorities for Russia could include various ceasefire compromises involving the war in the Ukraine, and restricting specified military cooperation with Iran. And the likelihood of progress? For the reasons above, progress on any issue between the US and Iran is very unlikely before this year’s US presidential elections. If or when afterwards would depend in large part on who was elected. For Russia, a ceasefire compromise in Ukraine could be possible if it gave them “temporary” retention of vast tracts of land captured post-2022. Timing will be dictated by battlefield outcomes, but the US Senate approval on 13 February of an additional US$60 billion of military assistance to the Ukraine, and its likely approval by Congress, makes a ceasefire in the foreseeable future unlikely.

Meloni and Selenskiy shaking hands

Ukraine policy in Rome

by Michael Feth , Nino Galetti

Italy top, Vatican flop? The first war of aggression in Europe since 1945 is keeping two global players busy in Rome: the Italian government and Vatican diplomacy. While under the leadership of President Sergio Mattarella and Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni there is no doubt about Italy's unbroken solidarity with Ukraine, criticism of the Holy See's course to date is growing, and not just in Catholic circles. Is Pope Francis' longed-for reconciliation with the Russian Orthodox Church more important than the future fate of Ukraine? When the right-wing alliance of Giorgia Meloni, Matteo Salvini and Silvio Berlusconi took power in Rome in October 2022, there was concern in some European government headquarters that the Tiber might be about to change its stance on the war in Ukraine. This mistrust was less directed at the newly elected Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni, known as an Atlanticist, who had clearly positioned herself and her party "Fratelli d'Italia" against Moscow's war of aggression and Putin's expansionist ambitions during the election campaign, and more towards her two allies Lega and Forza Italia. Both parties were perceived internationally as Russia-friendly, albeit for different reasons: While in the case of Lega leader Matteo Salvini - similar to his ally Marine Le Pen in France - it was the ideological proximity of the anti-European right-wing populists to the authoritarian regime in Moscow, in the case of the bourgeois-conservative Forza Italia it was Silvio Berlusconi's long-standing personal friendship with Vladimir Putin that triggered fears of Italy's rapprochement with Moscow. These were further fueled by several erratic statements by Berlusconi during the coalition negotiations in autumn 2022, in which he openly adopted the Kremlin's view of the Ukraine conflict and thus caused severe irritation among the allies. His adlatus at the time, Antonio Tajani, felt compelled to fly to Brussels at short notice to hold talks with the heads of the EU Commission, NATO and the European People's Party to reassure them that the new right-wing government in Rome would by no means abandon the EU's common line, but would remain faithful to its commitments. Berlusconi's capers and Salvini's ricochet The situation was different in the case of the right-wing populist Lega, which had achieved a historically poor result of just eight percent in the early elections in September 2022. Giorgia Meloni therefore had her rival Matteo Salvini in her hands and was able to demand loyalty from the potential troublemaker. At the time, the designated head of government openly threatened her two partners with a collapse of the coalition negotiations: there would be "no joint government at any price". She played her cards close to her chest and in the end even brought Silvio Berlusconi into line, who had to make a pilgrimage to the Fratelli d'Italia party headquarters to recant his pro-Moscow remarks. A humiliation for which the Forza Italia patriarch has never forgiven her. Since Berlusconi's death, the capers have ceased: under the leadership of Foreign Minister Antonio Tajani, Forza Italia is clearly on the side of its Western allies and in line with the EPP. With the approval of the President (who can veto appointments to the government), Meloni chose Guido Crosetto, who originally came from the ranks of the Christian Democrats and is known as an anti-Russian hardliner, as Defense Minister. The fears of the Western partners that one of the most important NATO states could leave the joint phalanx against Putin were put to rest. Meloni counters Putin's friends Meloni set further signals: The memorable joint trip of the three European leaders Mario Draghi, Emmanuel Macron and Olaf Scholz to Kiev on June 16, 2022 was still fresh in the minds of Ukrainians suffering from a daily hail of bombs, as Meloni made one of her first trips abroad to Kiev in February 2023 to personally assure President Volodymyr Zelensky of Italy's unwavering solidarity. The two had previously met at various international summits and the chemistry between them was instant. Since then, they have openly celebrated their cordial friendship in front of the cameras at every meeting. Under Meloni's aegis, there has been no hesitation or dithering in Rome on the Ukraine issue to date: Italy is supplying Ukraine with weapons and, together with its German allies, is monitoring the airspace on Europe's south-eastern flank and in the Black Sea from Romania. Rome is also firm in its sanctions policy against Russia: Dozens of accounts, real estate, ships and works of art belonging to Russian oligarchs on the EU sanctions list have been confiscated by the "Guardia di Finanza", the state financial police. And in the area of energy policy, Meloni has maintained the course of her predecessor Mario Draghi, who concluded supply contracts with a whole series of African, Arab and Central Asian states in order to quickly free Italy from its energy dependence on Moscow. During a working visit to Berlin last November, when Meloni and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz were connected via video to the first OSCE meeting of heads of state and government since the start of the war, which was also attended by Vladimir Putin, she showed herself to be quick-witted. When the Kremlin ruler demanded a quick end to the war, Meloni immediately countered: "You can have that immediately. All you have to do is withdraw your troops." British Prime Minister Richi Sunak expressly thanked his counterpart for her "global leadership". And US President Joe Biden also never misses an opportunity to praise Meloni for her clear stance in the conflict. However, their closest ally in the Ukraine issue is President Sergio Mattarella. With all the authority of his office and his unbroken popularity, he explains the moral and ethical dimension of the major conflict to his fellow countrymen in detailed formulations at every available opportunity. In doing so, he takes the wind out of the sails of populists on the left and right who - as in Germany - criticize high military spending and complain about rising inflation as a result of "Western interference" in the war in Ukraine. In matters of foreign and security policy, head of state Mattarella, who is also commander-in-chief of the armed forces in accordance with the constitution, has so far had no reason to get in the prime minister's way. Is the Pope a friend of Russia? On the other side of the Tiber, in the Vatican, however, there are increasing question marks. Of course, the head of the Catholic Church has always and at every available opportunity lamented the suffering of the people in "martyred Ukraine" and called for an immediate end to the fighting. It goes without saying that the Holy See stands by the victims and is doing everything in its power to organize humanitarian aid and bring it into the country. Naturally, the Roman Curia has tried everything behind the scenes to mediate and explore possible negotiated solutions. Accusing the Pope of "moral equidistance" from the attackers and victims is therefore misguided. However, Francis does indeed have to put up with the accusation of "political equidistance". The Holy See is traditionally committed to a policy of neutrality, which aims to use the Pope's unbroken spiritual and moral authority as a non-partisan mediator to resolve a conflict. For this reason, the Holy See always acts discreetly on the international stage and has the long-term perspective in mind. Its actors are not subject to any democratic pressure to succeed and are generally not interested in winning points in the media. However, two years after the start of the Russian war of aggression against Ukraine, it is clear that the world's oldest diplomatic service has fallen far short of expectations. For many observers, the problem lies in particular in Pope Francis' unclear position. It took seven months after the start of the Russian invasion of Ukraine for the pontiff to name the attack as such for the first time and to publicly name Russia as the aggressor for the only time to date. Like so many other heads of state, the pontiff was probably unable to imagine until that February 24, 2022, that Putin would allow Russia's tanks to roll towards Kiev, triggering the biggest war in Europe since 1945. The Kremlin ruler had met Francis in person at the Vatican an astonishing three times in the preceding years. Is Francis a "Russia-understander" who is lenient with the aggressors? Many Vatican observers are now asking themselves this question. It is no secret that the Pope "from the other side of the world" (as Francis put it on the day of his election) has a different approach to European history and European sensitivities than his immediate predecessors John Paul II and Benedict XVI. Jorge Mario Bergoglio, an Argentinian who was influenced by social-authoritarian Peronism as a child, does not have an unreservedly positive attitude towards the Western model of order. The first pope to come from Latin America can be said to have a critical view of the USA. It can be assumed that his experiences with the Trump presidency have not diminished his prejudices towards Washington's claim to international leadership. On the other hand, he has a certain soft spot for Russian classics from literature and music as well as for Russian history, as he himself revealed in a video link to a meeting of Catholic youths in Saint Petersburg. Tensions between Pope and Parolin In terms of church policy, there are also two ambitious goals that the 87-year-old has set himself since his election in 2013: Understanding with Beijing and rapprochement with the Russian Orthodox Church. He has been lenient to the point of self-denial with the political leaders of both powers; he has remained silent about some human rights violations and repression - including against Catholic clergy. A strategy that has repeatedly caused heated discussions in the highest circles of the world church - and not only among notorious critics of Francis. Years ago, the Pope tasked his Secretary of State Cardinal Pietro Parolin, a career Vatican diplomat and conflict expert whom Bergoglio had already come to know and appreciate as Archbishop of Buenos Aires, with the diplomatic implementation. With his help, a bishop of Rome met with a patriarch of Moscow for the first time in February 2016. Today, the two former confidants Francis and Parolin are considered to be at odds - and this is precisely where Putin's war comes into play. Soon after the invasion, Francis caused head-shaking in many places when, from a pacifist position, he refused to supply any weapons to Kiev and thus indirectly denied Ukraine's internationally enshrined right to self-defense. Cardinal Secretary of State Parolin and the Vatican "Foreign Minister" Paul Richard Gallagher, a Briton, corrected these statements in several interviews and corrected their own boss. Of course, they both argued, Ukraine, as a sovereign state, had the right to defend its territorial integrity, and the supply of military equipment and weapons was ethically justifiable. The "Kyrill card" After Putin was unavailable for his calls, Francis played another card: his personal relationship with Moscow Patriarch Cyril. Here, too, the experts warned the Pope that the head of the Russian Orthodox Church would be in the service of the Kremlin. Nevertheless, the pontiff played the "Cyril card". Francis was probably hoping that he could "turn" the patriarch politically with Jesuit cunning. To this day, his literal response to Parolin and Gallagher's warnings is still reported: "But Cyril is still a shepherd!" As expected, the "Cyril card" failed. Francis' bitter realization that the patriarch was an "altar boy of the Kremlin" came too late. The view that the Pope was a "Russophile" had long since become firmly established in Kiev. The suspicion of Russia-friendliness is fueled less by concrete actions than by the pontiff's omissions: to date, he has never addressed Putin directly in all his countless appeals for peace. He could have borrowed from a great predecessor: Immediately before the start of the Iraq war in 2003, Pope John-Paul II addressed US President George W. Bush at the Sunday Angelus prayer in front of running cameras and fervently implored him to refrain from the planned attack. When the city of Sarajevo was besieged for months during the civil war in the former Yugoslavia, triggering a humanitarian catastrophe, the Pope from Poland appointed the archbishop of the bombed-out Bosnian capital, the then 48-year-old Vinco Puljic, as its first cardinal in history in 1994. Three consistories with the appointment of new cardinals have taken place in Rome since the beginning of the Russian invasion of Ukraine: But the Ukrainians have so far waited in vain for a similar sign, although a suitable candidate is available in the figure of the Greek-Catholic Grand Archbishop Svyatoslav Shevchuk of Kiev. Diplomatic self-restraint of the Pope Francis appointed a high-ranking special mediator far too late: However, Cardinal Matteo Zuppi's shuttle mission between Moscow, Kiev, Washington and Beijing is now considered a failure. It seems that Kiev has lost hope that Vatican diplomacy will have a positive effect. At the same time, Moscow seems to be relying more on the mediation of the United Arab Emirates as the representative of the "global South" than on the Holy See as the supposed representative of the Western world when it comes to humanitarian actions such as the exchange of prisoners. Most serious, however, is the fact that Francis has so far refused any invitation to Kiev. He always repeats the same mantra that he will only travel to the Ukrainian capital if he is allowed to visit Moscow first. Either there is a secret plan behind this curious self-restraint on the part of the pontiff, which even close confidants among the cardinals are unable to see through, or it is a diplomatic staircase joke: Putin is unlikely to have the slightest interest in such a double trip by the Roman pontiff. And even if he did, a visit to Moscow by the Pope would probably give Vladimir Putin the biggest propaganda coup in his long time in office. Months ago, President Zelensky's security advisor announced that Kiev was no longer interested in a Vatican mediation mission. A resounding slap in the face for the Holy See's diplomacy in the most dangerous crisis in Europe since the end of the Second World War.

Defense & Security
Saint Basil's Cathedral as viewed from Red Square.

There Was Once a Counteroffensive

by Pascal Boniface

The war in Ukraine is developing not quite as expected. Kiev's army is on the defense, Moscow's troops are advancing. All the while, the distance between the West and the rest of the world is increasing The year 2023 was a catastrophic year for geopolitical affairs. The war between Russia and Ukraine that began a year earlier continues, followed by the war between Israel and Hamas that broke out on October 7. The expected collapse of the Russian army did not happen. Yevgeny Prigozhin, head of PMC Wagner, who openly questioned Vladimir Putin’s authority, died officially by accident. Vladimir Putin’s power is now even more firmly established in Russia. Westerners, who decided to leave Russia to impose sanctions on it, allowed it to recover $100 billion worth of abandoned assets for next to nothing, which the Russian government was able to redistribute among its cronies. The Ukrainian counteroffensive launched in the summer of 2023 has failed. The most likely scenario in this context is, of course, that the military situation will freeze, allowing Russia to retain some Ukrainian territory. This represents a heavy defeat for the West, as they themselves have stated that they will lose their credibility if Ukraine loses the game, and that Putin will win the war by default. The Ukrainian issue is also the subject of intense debate in the USA, with Republicans and Democrats arguing over whether to continue supporting Ukraine on a massive scale. The White House continues to massively support Kiev, but if Donald Trump returns to power next year, American aid to Ukraine will indeed be suspended. Vladimir Putin will be able to prevail, at least from a communications standpoint. The great mistake of the West is that it confused the desirable (Russia’s defeat) with the possible. However, demographics are in Russia’s favor: there are four times as many Russians as Ukrainians. The Russian defense industry is operating at full capacity and is supported by Iran and North Korea. Russia is weakened by the departure of many Russians who fled repression and mobilization. It is cut off from the Western world united against it, but on the other hand, it retains the cards to play in the so-called Global South. You could say that the war in Gaza has benefited its cause. Indeed, on October 7, 2023, Hamas launched deadly attacks against Israel. Israel has launched a massive military operation in the Gaza Strip to root out Hamas. By carrying out massive bombing raids that have already killed more than 24,000 people and created a catastrophic humanitarian situation. Gaza is a children’s graveyard. If nothing justifies the October 7 terrorist attacks, nothing justifies the massive and indiscriminate bombing of civilians who would otherwise be subjected to a blockade. This situation in the Middle East is a real argument for Vladimir Putin against the West. The latter actually continues to ask the countries of the Global South, non-Western countries, to adopt sanctions against Russia that has seized territories by force and bombed civilians, which is forbidden by international law. But the same Western countries recognize Israel’s unconditional right to self-defense, while Israel also occupies territories and bombs civilians. For the affected Israelis, there will be a before and an after October 7. They thought they lived in a safe haven, protected from harm, but found that they did not. These attacks came as an undeniable shock to Israel. But there will also be wars before and after the Gaza war, because the images of Palestinian civilians in the Gaza Strip under Israeli bombardment that we see now may be less visible in the Western world, but are widespread around the world and will also remain in the collective consciousness. In both cases, to varying degrees, there is a difference in understanding between Western and non-Western countries. Western countries condemn Russia and support Israel. Non-Western countries think it is completely abnormal to condemn Russia and not condemn Israel for bombing civilians. This difference in perception is growing and isolating the western world from the rest of the world.

Defense & Security
Ukrainian soldier launching a drone for reconnaissance

How the Drone War in Ukraine Is Transforming Conflict

by Kristen D. Thompson

Drone technology has been used extensively in twenty-first-century armed conflict, but the Russia-Ukraine war is driving innovations in autonomous warfare not seen on other battlefields. From drones that fit in the palm of the hand to drones weighing more than 1,000 pounds (454 kilograms), Ukraine has built and acquired a diverse fleet of remotely piloted aircraft to complicate and frustrate Russia’s advances. The constantly evolving scope of this technology and its ever-growing use signal not only the potential for drones to level the playing field in the Russia-Ukraine war, but also their ability to influence how future conflicts are waged. Why is the war in Ukraine a hotbed for drones? As the war enters its third calendar year, neither side is close to achieving air superiority. Most military analysts expected that Russia, with its superior air power, would quickly seize control of contested airspace early in the conflict. But surprisingly, Ukraine’s defenses, later bolstered by Western systems, were able to repel and deter Russian aircraft from making near-border and cross-border strikes. The inability of either side to break through the other’s integrated air defenses has forced them to increase the agility of their fielded forces and rely more heavily on standoff weapons, including long-range artillery, missiles, and drones. These conditions have led to the development of new drone technologies that could help Ukraine level the playing field in the air battle and possibly turn the tide of the war in its favor. What technologies are in use? Ukraine’s drone deployment has evolved with the changing battlefield. During earlier stages of the war—when Russia’s air defense and electronic-warfare capabilities were less pronounced—Ukraine relied on larger drones such as the Turkish TB2 Bayraktar to great effect. The TB2’s ability to carry multiple air-to-ground munitions and loiter for long periods allowed Ukrainian forces to penetrate Russian air defenses and strike heavy targets. However, as time progressed and Russia took greater control of the skies, it was able to detect and shoot down these larger models more easily. The TB2 may maintain some relevance—its sensor suite and considerable range still enable Ukrainian operators to collect intelligence—but Ukraine has nonetheless shifted to using smaller drone technology to adapt to Russian advances. The more abundant, smaller drones are proving to be serious game changers in that they have given Ukraine better battlespace awareness and more capability to hit targets. The Ukrainians have tapped into commercial technology—the same recreational products available to civilians—to get cheap, off-the-shelf drones onto the battlefield quickly. Many of these “hobbyist” drones have been acquired through grassroots crowdfunding efforts, or “dronations.” At just one thousand dollars per unit, the small drones can be rapidly amassed and repurposed by operators for a specific effect. For example, the popular first-person view (FPV) drones commonly used for racing or filmmaking are retrofitted with makeshift explosives and flown to strike fixed targets at relatively low cost. These drones can carry out single-use strikes with high precision while remaining less susceptible to Russian air defense systems. Additionally, the Ukrainians have repurposed significant aspects of their domestic economy to support the new drone supply chain, increasing their drone-making capabilities through public-private partnerships. One year ago, Ukraine had seven domestic drone manufacturers and it now has at least eighty. As for Russian drone technology, Moscow deploys indigenous models, such as the Orion, Eleron-3, Orlan-10, and Lancet, but Western sanctions on crucial Russian supply chains have prevented Moscow from excelling in drone production. Instead, Russia has turned to Iran for a steady supply. The Russians now boast an extensive fleet of Iranian-made Shahed-136 drones that can carry 100 pounds (45.4 kilograms) of explosives over a range of 1,200 miles (1931 kilometers). How are drones shaping the war? This conflict has demonstrated the battlefield advantages of drones, which have become smaller, more lethal, easier to operate, and available to almost anyone. They compress the so-called kill chain, shortening the time from when a target is detected to when it is destroyed, and they can bolster a military’s ability to reconnoiter the forward edge of the battlefield. Drones with longer endurance profiles can effectively conduct hours of reconnaissance, enabling other, more advanced drones to carry out precision strikes deep inside enemy territory. Other models enable individual soldiers to monitor adversary movement without risking lives or giving up the soldier’s position. Drones can also play an important international humanitarian role, for instance, by conducting battle and collateral damage assessments or exposing war crimes. U.S. drone manufacturer Skydio recently donated nine drones that—with their high-resolution cameras—will be used to help Ukraine document potential Russian war crimes. Through the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), images captured will be used to aid the Office of the Prosecutor General in documenting many instances of human rights abuses. What are the defenses against drones? Drones are susceptible to air defenses. Larger drones with a distinct radar cross-section are easy, slow-moving targets for air defense interceptors and anti-drone guns; both Ukraine and Russia have downed thousands of drones with their interceptors and artillery. However, the continual use of these systems by both Ukraine and Russia can be prohibitively costly, as a single drone could cost thousands or even millions of dollars to intercept. An emerging challenge of counter-drone defense is the need to develop and employ a system that is cheaper than its target. Crucially, smaller drones that can swarm toward a target are more difficult to shoot down. as they can overwhelm air defense systems. A key countermeasure has been to utilize electronic warfare in the form of jammers, spoofers, and high-energy lasers that prevent drones from reaching their target. Jammers—used by both Russia and Ukraine—send out powerful electromagnetic signals that can cause a target drone to fall to the ground, veer off course, or turn around and attack its operator. As the war progresses, both sides are continually investing in and adapting electronic warfare tactics to counter the innovations of their adversary. How will the drone war evolve? The Russia-Ukraine conflict has demonstrated that innovations in drone technology can change the balance of power in the air defense domain especially. While Russia seeks to build pockets of air superiority and bolster its drone production and anti-drone defenses, Ukraine continues to develop both more and less sophisticated solutions. In a recently uncovered partnership project with Iran, Russia finished constructing a drone factory in Tatarstan, 500 miles (805 kilometers) east of Moscow, where it could produce an estimated six thousand Shahed-136 prototypes (renamed the Geran-2 by Moscow) by mid-2025. This expanded drone production could be enough to counter Russia’s shortage of drones on the front lines and turn the tide of the conflict in its favor. However, Ukraine’s ability to acquire and crowdsource commercial drone technology, tactically modify drones in the field based on real-time feedback, and alter tactics to defeat anti-drone systems have proved to be crucial to its war effort. Even while overmatched force-wise, Ukraine has shown how savvy technological adaptation can change twenty-first century warfare and could tip the balance of power in favor of the force that is more innovative. Editor’s Note: Opinions, conclusions, and recommendations expressed or implied within are solely those of the author.

Expanding the relationships between Russia and North Korea

Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s opening remarks during talks with Foreign Minister of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea Choe Son-hui, Moscow, January 16, 2024

by Sergey Lavrov

Comrade Choe Son-hui, I am very glad to welcome you and all your delegation members to Moscow in the first days of 2024. I would like to once again congratulate you and our Korean friends on the holidays we have celebrated recently and wish you all the best and every success in the new year. The timing of this meeting provides us with a perfect opportunity to conduct a preliminary review of our efforts to carry out the agreements resulting from the summit between President of Russia Vladimir Putin and Chairman of State Affairs of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea Kim Jong-un at the Vostochny Space Launch Centre in September 2023. We are proactively working on these matters. I have warm memories of my visit to Pyongyang in October 2023 and the hospitality you extended to our delegation. The 10th meeting of the Russian-Korean Intergovernmental Commission for Trade, Economic, Scientific and Technical Cooperation in November 2023 was another important event. There were also other bilateral exchanges at the agency, ministry, and regional levels. We appreciate the fact that DPRK’s Minister of Physical Culture and Sport, Kim Il-guk, took part in the Russia – A Sports Nation international forum in Perm in October 2023, while DPRK’s Minister of Culture Sung Jong-gyu proactively contributed to the 9th St Petersburg International Cultural Forum in November 2023. The visit by a delegation from the Primorye Territory to Pyongyang, led by Governor Oleg Kozhemyako, in December 2023 was also very useful. These contacts mark the beginning of an intensive and demanding, but also fruitful and rewarding, work to expand our relations across the board. We are preparing several other important events, including on cultural and humanitarian matters. I can mention the upcoming performance by Mariinsky Theatre’s Primorye branch in Pyongyang, as well as the participation of Russian performing groups in the annual April Spring festival. Today, we will have a detailed discussion on topical bilateral matters, including ways to further enhance our practical cooperation. As for the international agenda, we are looking forward to continuing our trust-based dialogue on the situation on the Korean Peninsula and in Northeast Asia in general. Russia reaffirms its principled position on the need to find comprehensive and fair solutions to the existing problems. We have always advocated for talks without preconditions as a path to achieving lasting peace and stability across Northeast Asia. Russia has independently submitted proposals to this effect, as well as together with the PRC, to the UN Security Council. These proposals are currently on the negotiating table. We must recognise that the policy pursued by the United States and its regional satellites to create security threats for the DPRK does nothing to promote any positive advancements. We will continue to call for the rejection of any steps that lead to escalation and heightening tensions. We are working together within a broader geography on security matters in the Asia-Pacific region, where we must uphold universal mechanisms rooted in ASEAN proposals and which have been effectively operating for many decades. However, attempts by the United States and its allies to create closed, bloc-based formats and to expand NATO infrastructure to this region undermine these mechanisms and erode their effectiveness. We have been working closely and very successfully with Pyongyang within the United Nations and at other multilateral organisations. Russia has always supported the DPRK within the UN and appreciates the fact that you have treated Russia in the same manner, including on matters related to the ongoing special military operation in Ukraine. We have a packed agenda, and I am certain that today’s talks will enable us to advance towards delivering on the agreements between our leaders resulting from the September 2023 summit.

The Sino-Russian biotechnology collaboration

Global implications of the Sino-Russian biotechnology collaboration

by Shravishtha Ajaykumar

The Sino-Russian biotechnology collaboration, augmented by its strategic focus on pharmaceuticals and economic growth, has called for a global concern on the future of globalisation. In 2019, China and Russia reinforced their collaboration in scientific innovation and technology. This collaboration, traced back to the 1990s, was relaunched in a signed letter by Chinese President Xi Jinping in March 2023, before he visited Russia. In 2021, Russia and China launched their lunar research and exploration roadmap. The collaboration between these two countries has also included remote sensing, electronic components for space flight applications, and space debris monitoring. In nuclear technology and energy cooperation, the two countries have undertaken the construction of the seventh and eighth power units. The Tianwan Nuclear Power Plant's third and fourth power units of the Xudabao Nuclear Power Plant in China were launched in May 2021. Additionally, the countries have promised the completion of a cross-border pipeline to supply natural gas across the Beijing, Shanghai and Tianjin routes. Additionally, the Russia-China Investment Fund was established by the Russian Direct Investment Fund and China Investment Corporation. Much of the funding and investments upcoming in this area of collaboration between China and Russia are attributed to the Belt Road Initiative, which is expanding research in university research centres in biology, material sciences, and space exploration. This history of cooperation underpins a strategic convergence towards the biotechnology sector, as both nations recognise the potential of this field to not only drive their scientific advancement but also reshape the global scientific landscape. There are multifaceted dimensions of the Sino-Russian biotechnology collaboration, delving into its historical roots, far-reaching implications, hurdles, and potential consequences, including its impact on biowarfare and biosecurity. China has outlined biotech goals in its Made in China 2025 strategy, including innovative medicine. Similarly, Russia released its Pharma 2030 strategy in December 2021. This strategy aims to enhance the production of medicine and medical equipment and innovation, One of the pivotal domains of this collaboration lies in genetics and genomics. The immense genetic diversity within both nations provides an unprecedented platform for joint research to unravel the intricate genetic underpinnings of various diseases. By pooling their vast resources, expansive datasets, and scientific expertise, China and Russia can accelerate the pace of genomic research and chart the course for personalised medicine and innovative approaches to disease prevention. This has implications for their populations and the broader global healthcare and biotechnology innovation landscape. Both countries have seen an increase in biotechnology capacities in the last decade. China, for example, has a biotechnology market value of nearly USD 4 billion as of 2021. Similarly, Russia has also begun expanding research and market investment in biotechnology, especially since the advent of their SARS-Cov vaccine, Sputnik V. Though Russia’s market expansion is yet to grow to compete with other larger economies, its collaboration with China may indicate future growth in this area. Despite limitations in their national biotech industries, Russia and China have increased collaboration in the field of biotechnology; one notable example includes the Russian company Biocad and Chinese manufacturer Shanghai Pharmaceuticals Holding (SPH) collaborating to commercialise medicines in the Chinese market. This venture received significant funding, with SPH holding 50.1% and Biocad 49.9%.Global ImplicationsHowever, the growth of Chinese and Russian biotech programmes and their collaboration has sparked concerns in other countries. Many countries, including the United States (US), highlighted them as countries to monitor due to “unreliable information”, as stated in the Biodefence Posture Review 2023. In 2022, the US released a renewed National Biodefence Strategy and Implementation Plan and its Biodefence Posture Review 2023. The 2023 Biodefence posture review highlights the need for a biosecurity approach to biodefence. Similarly, the United Kingdom (UK) has released a biological security strategy, where the Russian invasion of Ukraine has been highlighted in a case study linked to an increase in the Avian Flu. Outside of concerns directly related to Russia and China, these strategies, including India’s Biosafety Manual for Public Safety Laboratories, highlight a pressing need for biowarfare preparedness and underscores the significance of collaboration in the biotechnology realm to address non-reported activities or non-state actors and bioterrorism. In response to the global shift in investment and innovation into biotechnology, preceded by the concerns of the pandemic and the potential for future pandemics, other regions, including the European Union and Africa, are also prioritising biosafety and biosecurity strategies. Biosafety and Biosecurity are growing concerns for nation-states in the coming decade, so many have highlighted these areas in their strategies. However, with collaborations between countries attributed to unreliable, this strategy must also consider responding to misinformation and malintent.Responding to Sino-Russian collaborationAs the potential threat of biowarfare looms, strategies are not enough and collaborative efforts of larger economies can prove to become pivotal in developing advanced strategies for detecting, preventing, and mitigating bioterrorist threats. Their combined expertise in genetics and biotechnology offers the potential to create rapid response systems, advanced diagnostics, and countermeasures against potential biowarfare agents. Such collaboration can address strategies' applications and concerns around Sino-Russian cooperation, non-state actor threats and future pandemics. Creating a collaborative bilateral alliance between India and the USA in the field of biotechnology growth and innovation can help counter the potential of the Sino-Russian collaboration that does not inhibit global development but still prioritises the needs of other economies. Such an alliance can also be developed under multilateral partnerships like the Quad (Quadrilateral Strategic Alliance (India, Japan, Australia, US)) or I2U2 (India, Israel, UK, US). We have already seen India progress in the global market with collaborative advancements in vaccine development. The same expanded diagnostics and surveillance technologies testify to their commitment to international security and preparedness.  They provide the global south and upcoming economies with a more significant platform to compete with economies like Russia and China. The journey of Sino-Russian biotechnology collaboration, specifically emphasising biowarfare preparedness, is challenging. Geopolitical considerations, intricacies surrounding medical innovation, trade and investment, and the complexities of regulatory harmonisation necessitate navigation. Sustaining the success of this collaboration demands cultivating further global partnerships between other countries at bilateral/trilateral levels, mutual trust, equitable resource allocation, and sharing knowledge in an atmosphere of camaraderie.ConclusionThe recent strides taken during the COVID-19 pandemic highlight the urgency and effectiveness of global cooperation in addressing emerging infectious diseases and bioterrorist threats. The international community witnessed how rapid vaccine development and distribution can be achieved through collaborative cross-border efforts. Joint initiatives are poised to yield breakthroughs in biopharmaceuticals, regenerative medicine, bioinformatics, and biowarfare preparedness. The Sino-Russian biotechnology collaboration, augmented by its strategic focus on pharmaceuticals and economic growth to space and BRI applications, has called for a global concern on the future of globalisation. Additional concerns around biowarfare preparedness symbolise the evolving landscape of scientific partnership and balancing the same with geopolitical alliances. By harnessing their complementary expertise in genetics, genomics, healthcare, and biowarfare preparedness, China and Russia stand poised to redefine the contours of the biotechnology industry, revolutionise global health outcomes, stimulate economic growth, and enhance global security. As they adeptly navigate challenges and seize the opportunities that lie ahead, other leading economies, including India, must also further their growth in biotechnology and address global markets through collaboration.