Vladimir Putin

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Lord Evgeny Lebedev Joins Enterprise Run by Saudi Ruler Accused of Approving Killing of Journalist Khashoggi

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Sat, 02/07/2022 - 12:44am in

The owner of the Evening Standard and Independent has reinforced his ties to the authoritarian Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, reveals Sam Bright

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The UK-Russian newspaper proprietor Lord Evgeny Lebedev has joined the board of a non-profit enterprise created by the Saudi Government, holding his position alongside Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman – who, according to US intelligence services, personally approved the capturing and killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018.

The enterprise is called Hevolution – founded to research the science of anti-ageing, which is a preoccupation of many wealthy ‘philanthropists’.

“It’s time to focus science and business on ageing as a treatable process, not just on its terminal symptoms,” its website states.

Funded by the Saudi state, Hevolution reportedly has an annual $1 billion budget to fund the science of increasing the healthy human lifespan.

The head of the Hevolution board of trustees is Crown Prince bin Salman, the authoritarian ruler of Saudi Arabia.

The board also includes Abdullah bin Bandar Al Saud (Minister of the Saudi National Guard), Yasir Al-Rumayyan (Governor of the Saudi Public Investment Fund), Fahad Toonsi (advisor to the Saudi Royal Court) – and, of course, Evgeny Lebedev.

Screenshot: Hevolution website

Lebedev, born in Moscow but now a British citizen, is the proprietor of the Evening Standard and the Independent, after Lebedev Holdings – funded by his father, Alexander Lebedev – purchased the titles in 2009 and 2010 respectively. Alexander Lebedev was a director of Lebedev Holdings from 2008 to 2016.

Evgeny Lebedev became a member of the House of Lords in July 2020 after being nominated by Boris Johnson. The Prime Minister reportedly pressured the UK security services to reverse their assessment of the appointment, with the initial intelligence advice being that “there could be a threat to national security”.

According to reporting by The Times, Johnson “took a personal interest in the case” after meeting with Lebedev in March 2020 – following an initial rejection of the peerage. “A former advisor said [that Johnson] refused to accept the verdict of the security services and would not drop the issue,” The Times has reported.

The minutes of this discussion between Johnson and Lebedev were not recorded. The Prime Minister denies that he overruled security advice but has said that “it’s very, very, very important that we get the message over that we’re not anti-Russian”.

Despite this, the Government has so far refused to release information about the decision to make Evgeny Lebedev a peer, having been instructed to produce this evidence by Parliament.

Alexander Lebedev, Evgeny’s father and the source of the family’s wealth, was a KGB officer in London from 1988 to 1992.

Moving into the financial sector, Lebedev senior amassed vast personal wealth – listed as the 39th richest Russian by Forbes in 2008, with an estimated wealth of $3.1 billion, which diminished after one of his Russian newspapers published an exposé about Russian President Vladimir Putin and his alleged affair with a famed gymnast.

Evgeny Lebedev is a renowned figure in London high society and has seemingly been a close acquaintance of Crown Prince bin Salman for some time. Indeed, Evgeny hosted a dinner with him in 2018, during the latter’s state visit to the UK. They were joined by Virgin co-founder Richard Branson, whose spokesperson confirmed bin Salman’s attendance.

Moreover, Lebedev Holdings – which in turn owns the Evening Standard and Independent – has been accused by the UK Government of being part-owned by the Saudi state, due to a series of “unconventional, complex and clandestine” deals involving a Saudi businessman that resulted in a 30% acquisition of the firm.

The Government initially sought to investigate the deal, suggesting that the Saudi Government could now potentially exert editorial influence over the publications. However, a tribunal ruled in 2019 that the Government had missed the deadline to force a full investigation into the investments.

“Editorial independence and freedom of expression have always been, and continue to be, critical to our publications,” a spokesperson for the media outlets said after the ruling.

Yet, there are reasons to doubt this statement. As revealed by Byline Times last year, the two publications accepted an undisclosed sum of money from Saudi Arabia to publish dozens of positive environmental stories about the country before, during, and after the COP26 UN climate change summit in Glasgow.

Special Relationships

These links are particularly concerning given the Saudi Government’s repression of freedom of speech and the press. Most grotesquely, former Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi was murdered and dismembered while visiting the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, Turkey, in 2018.

Khashoggi was a critic of Crown Prince bin Salman’s regime, having previously been an advisor to the Saudi Government. He fell out of favour and went into self-imposed exile in the US in 2017.

American intelligence agencies concluded that Crown Prince bin Salman “approved an operation in Istanbul to capture or kill Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi” – a conclusion backed-up by UN special rapporteur Agnes Callamard, who accused the Saudi state of the “deliberate, premeditated execution” of Khashoggi.

Crown Prince bin Salman has denied any role in the murder and has said that the US intelligence report is “negative, false and unacceptable”.

However, reports of Saudi human rights abuses are widespread. The Kingdom reportedly executed 81 people just days before Boris Johnson’s recent trip to Riyadh, and three on the day he arrived.

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“Saudi authorities in 2021 routinely repressed dissidents, human rights activists and independent clerics,” according to the monitoring organisation Human Rights Watch. “Detainees, including children, commonly face systematic violations of due process and fair trial rights, including arbitrary arrest.”

Human Rights Watch has also highlighted the country’s prolonged war in Yemen, which it has waged for the best part of the last decade – claiming 377,000 lives, according to the UN, by the end of 2021.

The UK has approved £11 billion in military exports to Saudi Arabia since 2010 – comfortably the largest total exported to any country in the world – despite the country featuring on the UK’s human rights watchlist. Of the licenses granted, £6.2 billion was for ‘aircraft, helicopters, drones’ and £4.3 billion was for ‘grenades, bombs, missiles, countermeasures’.

Boris Johnson has been courting the Saudis in recent months, encouraging the Gulf state to invest heavily in the UK as part of his Government’s ‘levelling up’ agenda. He used his recent trip to Riyadh to push the Saudis to increase their energy output, in order to compensate for declining imports from Russia.

Asked about criticism of Saudi Arabia’s human rights record during the trip, the Prime Minister said: “I’ve raised all those issues many, many times over the past... and I’ll raise them all again today. But we have long, long standing relationships with this part of the world and we need to recognise the very important relationship that we have... and not just in hydrocarbons.”

Johnson also has a special relationship with Evgeny Lebedev, having regularly visited the Lebedev family home in Perugia, Italy, during his time as London Mayor and Foreign Secretary – including two days after a high-level NATO summit April 2018 focused on the West’s response to the Skripal poisonings in Salisbury.

Johnson seemingly abandoned his security team for this trip – a breach of government protocol – and was pictured at San Francesco d’Assisi airport looking dishevelled, clutching a book about war strategy. Alexander Lebedev attended this party and reportedly offered to mediate between Johnson – at the time the UK's Foreign Secretary – and Vladimir Putin.

Johnson also celebrated his landslide victory in the 2019 General Election by attending Alexander Lebedev’s 60th birthday party; while Byline Times has revealed how Evgeny Lebedev attempted to lobby Johnson, while he was London Mayor, to support his pet projects – including a Russian Arts Festival in the capital.

Minutes from the meeting show that the festival was aimed at “transforming global perceptions” of Russia and that Lebedev boasted of his links to the Kremlin as a means of obtaining funding. Ultimately, Johnson provided no support and the event didn’t materialise.

Alexander Lebedev has recently been sanctioned by Canada, for being among those who had “directly enabled Vladimir Putin’s senseless war in Ukraine”. These sanctions haven’t been matched by the UK. Lebedev senior severed his links with the Independent the day after he was hit with the sanctions.

“Lord Lebedev was nominated for a peerage in recognition of his contribution to the UK, including his charitable endeavours,” a Government spokesperson said. “All peerages are vetted by the House of Lords Appointments Commission and the process was followed correctly in the case of this nomination. The then Chair of the Committee on Standards in Public Life, Lord Bew, has since made clear that no pressure was exerted on the Commission on this matter”.

Neither Hevolution, the Independent, nor the Evening Standard responded to Byline Times’ request for comment.

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Major Russian Donor Funds Conservative Member of Intelligence Committee

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Thu, 30/06/2022 - 2:43am in

The wife of a former Russian deputy finance minister has gifted thousands to a member of the committee that investigated Russian interference, reports Sascha Lavin

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A top Tory donor whose husband formerly worked as Russia’s deputy finance minister has given even more money to the Conservatives, the Byline Intelligence Team can reveal.

Lubov Chernukhin is married to Vladimir Chernukhin, who served as Russia’s deputy finance minister from 2000 to 2002, after which he was appointed by Vladimir Putin as the chair of a state bank. The family claims that it was forced to flee Russia to the UK in 2004 after Vladimir Chernukhin was dismissed from his position and senior Conservative figures have defended Lubov’s contribution to Conservative Party finances.

Foreign Secretary Liz Truss has said “I think it’s very important we don’t conflate people with Russian heritage with people close to the Putin regime”.

However, the Conservatives have been criticised for their open-arms approach to Russian money since Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine earlier this year, and the Byline Intelligence Team can reveal that Lubov Chernukhin recently gifted £6,500 to Conservative MP and former minister Theresa Villiers, according to the latest register of member’s interests.

Villiers is a member of the Intelligence and Security Committee, which published a long-delayed report into Russian influence in the UK in July 2020. The so-called ‘Russia Report’ concluded that “Russian influence in the UK is the new normal”, encouraged by donations to political parties. Chernukhin was not named by the Russia Report, nor was any other individual donor.

This is not the first time that Chernukhin has given money to Villiers, who also gave £2,000 to the Chipping Barnet MP in 2019.

Chernukhin’s lawyers have previously said that her “donations to the Conservative Party have never been tainted by Kremlin or any other influence”. She is a British citizen and entitled to donate to UK political parties. 

A spokesperson for Villiers told Byline Times that: “This donation has been appropriately and transparently declared and complies with the rules. Mrs Chernukhin is a British citizen who is entitled to donate to political causes if she chooses. She has not lived in Russia since she was a teenager and has spoken out against the Putin regime.”

Hey Big Spender

Chernukhin – the largest female political donor in British history – has given more than £2.2 million to the Conservative Party since 2012, yet the BBC’s Panorama recently uncovered her connection to sanctioned oligarch Suleiman Kerimov. 

Soviet-born Chernukhin appears to have a penchant for Conservative Party auctions: in 2014 she paid £160,000 to play tennis with the then-London mayor Boris Johnson and then-prime minister David Cameron, and, five years later she spent £135,000 to attend a dinner with the then Prime Minister Theresa May and numerous female Cabinet members – including Truss.

Although she responded “no comment” when asked if she had won any prizes at the Conservative’s summer party earlier this week, it is now understood that Chernukhin paid £30,000 for a wine tasting.

Byline Times asked the Conservative Party whether and how it vets the donors who purchase auction prizes at these fundraising events – in particular those who pay for meetings with senior ministers. It did not receive a response.

Chernukhin is also one of several donors to have been granted access to Downing Street via a secret ‘advisory board’ – a little-known collective of big money donors given exclusive access to senior Downing Street advisors and even the Prime Minister.

Electoral Commission records show that she has given a further £7,616 to the Conservative Party’s ‘Spring Lunch’ fundraising arm in recent months – and £60,500 to the central party earlier this year.

Chernukhin and her husband’s wealth – much of it believed to be held offshore – is estimated to be in excess of £366 million

Following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine earlier this year, Foreign Secretary Liz Truss promised the “toughest sanctions regime against Russia”, while the Prime Minister professed to be “anti-Putin”.

When Johnson was asked by Labour MP Bill Esterson in March whether he would order the Conservative Party to give Russia-linked donations to Ukrainian humanitarian causes, the Prime Minister refused, saying that: “It’s absolutely vital that... we demonstrate that this is not about the Russian people, it is about the Putin regime”. 

This article was produced by the Byline Intelligence Team – a collaborative investigative project formed by Byline Times with The Citizens. If you would like to find out more about the Intelligence Team and how to fund its work, click on the button below.

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No Sanctions Applied to 11 UK Firms With Links to Sanctioned Russians

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Fri, 17/06/2022 - 9:52pm in

Diogo Augusto reports on several domestic companies whose directors feature on the UK’s international sanctions list, that have so far evaded the authorities

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Eleven UK companies with directorship links to individuals who are targets of Government sanctions due to their proximity to the Kremlin have not themselves been sanctioned, Byline Times has found.

After the invasion of Ukraine by Russia this past February, countries and international bodies have been implementing a series of sanctions in an attempt to hit Vladimir Putin and his regime.

Byline Times has searched the 1,267 individuals and 151 entities on the Consolidated List of Financial Sanctions Targets in the UK and has found 11 companies which, despite their link to designated persons, have not been sanctioned.

The firms are not accused of wrongdoing, though it is worth questioning the efficacy of the UK’s sanctions regime, when the companies associated with those sanctioned are able to operate seemingly unencumbered.

RCIF UK

The Russia-China Investment Fund (ICIF) was created through a bilateral agreement between the two countries and now includes Saudi Arabia. In an effort to seek mutual investment opportunities, the Chinese sovereign wealth fund contributed $1 billion and the Russian Direct Investment Fund (RDIF) – its Russian counterpart – contributed another $1 billion.

The fund is incorporated in China but also controls the RCIF UK, a British entity created to manage a UK branch of the fund. It was created in 2014 with a share capital of $3 million, now increased to $20 million.

One of the four directors of RCIF UK is, since 2014, Kirill Alexandrovich Dmitriev, a Kyiv-born Russian national featuring on the UK sanctions list.

According to the document, “As Chief Executive Officer of RDIF, Dmitriev is working as a director or equivalent of a Government of Russia-affiliated entity, and for a person which is carrying on business in a sector of strategic significance to the Government of Russia; and for a person which is carrying on business of economic significance to the Government of Russia, and is therefore obtaining a benefit from or supporting the Government of Russia”.

Companies House doesn’t specify any owners for RCIF UK and the fund is not listed on the sanctions list.

RCIF UK did not respond to our request for comment.

Terra Services

Terra Services Limited (TSL) was incorporated in the UK in 2003 with sole director and owner Pavel Ezubov. TSL is a dormant company and declared in 2021 to have assets just over £300.000 and no employees.

Ezubov occupies entry number 245 on the UK sanctions list for being an associate of Russian oligarch Oleg Deripaska (entry 205).

Deripaska was the owner of TSL until, in January 2018, Ezubov took over.

TSL unsuccessfully sued the National Crime Agency in 2020 after a storage unit was searched and 11 boxes of TSL documents apprehended at the request of the US Department of State while investigating the case of Donald Trump associate Paul Manafort.

Under UK rules, TSL should be automatically subject to an asset freeze as it is owned by a designated person. However, it has not been included on the sanctions list.

Sberbanque de Russie

With a share capital of £1 billion, this currently dormant company incorporated in 2016 has 10 active directors, two of them are currently on the UK sanctions list.

51% of the company is owned by the Central Bank of the Russian Federation and the remaining 49% belongs to Sberbank of Russia, state-owned and the country’s largest bank. Sberbank is, itself, a target of financial sanctions. This information is on the company’s incorporation document and all subsequent updates have not reported a change. Yet, a spokesperson for Sberbank told Byline Times: “Sberbanque de Russie is not related to Sberbank Group.”

Sberbanque director Herman Gref is listed as number 316 of the UK sanctions list for being CEO and board chairman of Sberbank. According to the UK Government, “Sberbank has been designated as a person involved in obtaining a benefit from or supporting the Government of Russia. As the Chief Executive and Chairman of the board of Sberbank Gref is associated with a person involved in obtaining a benefit from or supporting the Government of Russia, and has received a financial benefit from that person”.

Lev Khasis, another director and first deputy chairman of Sberbank, was included in the list (431) through an urgent procedure after Canada imposed sanctions on him and the UK considered it in the public interest. There have been reports that Khasis, a dual US-Russian citizen, fled Russia suddenly shortly after the invasion of Ukraine.

Sberbanque, not owners is not listed on the UK sanctions list.

Eugene Tenenbaum

Tenenbaum is a Ukraine-born Canadian national, featured on the UK sanctions list due to his association with Roman Abramovich, the Russian billionaire who is still listed as the owner of Chelsea Football Club.

Tenenbaum is linked to six different companies which all seem to be in the Chelsea FC orbit. He is one of the directors of Fordstam Limited, the parent company of the group through which Abramovich’s financing of the club was facilitated. There are then five more companies under the umbrella of Fordstam Limited which all list Tenenbaum as their director: Fordstam Developments Limited, Chelsea Digital Ventures Limited, Chelsea FC Holdings Limited, Stamford Bridge Projects Ltd, Chelsea Football Club Limited.

As a result of sanctions imposed on Abramovich, he has announced his intention to sell the club. However, the process has been bumpy with one of the issues being the outstanding £1.6 billion debt that Fordstam owes Abramovich.

Roman Abramovich still shows as the ultimate beneficial owner of Fordstam Limited  (and Chelsea Digital Ventures Limited) and, although it is expectable that this will change once the sale is complete, it is unclear whether Tenenbaum will continue as director of these six companies.

All the other companies list Fordstam Limited as the sole owner and none have been listed on the UK sanctions list.

Chelsea FC did not respond to our request for comment.

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Nigina Zairova

Zairova (entry 1234 on the sanctions list) is the director and, since March 2022, owner of Reashon Holding Ltd and Athlone House Limited. Although Zairova was always director of both companies, before March, they were owned by Mikhail Fridman.

According to the UK list of sanctioned persons “there are reasonable ground to suspect that Zairova is acting on behalf or at the direction of Fridman”.

Mikhail Fridman is on the list himself, at number 264, for being “closely associated with President Vladimir Putin”. He is also owner of Alfa Bank, Russia’s largest privately owned bank. Alfa did not respond to our request for comment.

Athlone House is the name of the large Victorian house Fridman bought in 2016 for £65 million and Athlone House Limited’s declared nature of business is: “activities of households as employers of domestic personnel”.

These companies should be automatically subject to an asset freeze as they are owned by a designated person. However, they have not been included on the sanctions list.

A UK Treasury spokesperson told Byline Times that: “The UK does not designate entities in their own right that could have exposure to sanctions through their ownership and control structure, as that could change at any time.”

However, an official financial sanctions guide, says: “An asset freeze and some financial services restrictions will apply to entities… that are owned or controlled, directly or indirectly, by a designated person”.

It adds: “The UK Government will look to designate owned or controlled entities/individuals in their own right where possible”.

While ownership is sometimes easily accessible, control is a fuzzier concept. One of the roles of the Office of Financial Sanctions Implementation (OFSI) is to enforce financial sanctions. However, when asked if it knew whether these companies had or should have their assets frozen or how third parties could know whether a company was controlled by a designated person, the Treasury declined to comment.

The Treasury spokesperson also said that OFSI was not able to comment on specific companies due to data protection laws, but declined to specify which laws prevented this.

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‘Ukraine Fatigue’ Will be Vladimir Putin’s Biggest Ally in the Months Ahead

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Thu, 16/06/2022 - 8:34pm in

Ukraine's victory matters to the world and the West should continue to provide support in whatever way it can, says Paul Niland

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Vladimir Putin’s war of choice against Ukraine is now entering a new phase, necessitated by his failure to accomplish his early goals militarily and the attrition rate of his stockpile of equipment, ammunition and personnel.  

What began as an attempt to capture the entire country – through the thoroughly mistaken notion that if he could take the capital and install a proxy as head of state to replace the democratically-elected president – is now a battle focused in the eastern Donbas region and a coming battle to re-take the areas in southern Ukraine that have been occupied since 24 February.

Before this year's invasion, Russia controlled 7.2% of Ukraine, after it annexed Crimea and occupied parts of the east in 2014. The latter was made possible by the Russian Army’s hollowing-out of Ukraine’s border defences, leaving more than 400km of the internationally recognised border fully open for the insertion of fighters and weapons supplies from the Russian Federation.

Today, Russia is occupying some 20% of Ukraine and the active frontline extends to 1,200km. This has been allowed to happen by apathy, indifference, and ignorance.

The horrors of Bucha were not an isolated occurrence. The way the Russian Army has been shown to behave there are their standards, applied everywhere – and so the occupation of 20% of Ukraine leaves millions of people subject to abductions, executions, rapes and looting.

The near-total destruction of Mariupol was also not a one-off. In Severodeonetsk and Popsana Russia’s prime military tactic is one of scorched earth – everything in the path of their advance is being destroyed.

But the percentage of the country that is occupied by Russia is not the most important factor. The lives of individuals are being shattered.

One of the victims of Russia’s occupation of Irpin, on the outskirts of Kyiv, was a 75-year-old woman named Larissa. She had founded a kindergarten there, which she ran for decades. She was a matriarch of that community, with many people having been entrusted to her care when they were very young. Larissa had just recently retired. She is one of Putin's victims.

Ignorance is cured by knowledge. Every voice from Ukraine has been telling the same story since 2014: they know they are not fighting 'separatists' but forces deployed by the Kremlin. This fact is important because is the weak response to Russia's 2014 invasion was the result of some people tending to believe that there is a shred of truth in the notion that the people of eastern Ukraine, being Russian speakers, have an affinity to Russia and are different from other Ukrainians. The conflict that started in 2014 wasn’t locally initiated but it led to Ukrainian citizens in 7.2% of the country becoming Russian hostages. Now, residents of 20% of Ukraine are hostages.

Apathy and indifference is also playing its part. But the notion of 'Ukraine fatigue' is a difficult one to fathom for those of us living in the country. With the war having now raged for 110 days, the only party with the right to be fatigued are the Ukrainians themselves, but they are not. Because they are engaged in an existential battle for the survival of their nation and the freedom of their fellow citizens. Not only can they not walk away from this fight, they will not – and nobody should expect them to.

In this way, the war in Ukraine does not stand at a crossroads. We are not facing a situation where it could go either way and either side may be able to win, for a variety of reasons.

While some commentators predicted that Kyiv could be encircled and fall in 72 hours, Ukrainians never accepted any such notion. While some expected that the significantly out-matched firepower that held on to the port city of Mariupol would collapse within days, Ukraine’s defenders in that city fought on for 84. This is no surprise to veteran watchers of this war who remember the heroic defence of Donetsk airport, which lasted for almost a year.

We will see the same commitment in Severodonetsk and Slovyansk, both of which are cities in the Donbas that are now the scenes of heavy battles. These will be contested street by street, building by building, by the land forces stationed there. They too will be protracted battles, despite the fact that those places are simultaneously being destroyed by Russia’s long-range artillery.

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The Ukrainian Army will fight on until the end as long as it has the weapons and ammunition to do so. And it must – as Ukraine’s victory will have demonstrable international consequences too.

A global food security crisis is now at risk due to Russia’s continued blockade of Ukraine’s southern sea ports. If it continues, millions of people in Africa will face famine. The resulting flow of refugees and migrants will mean that the fall-out from Putin’s manufactured food crisis will not be confined to Africa.

Ukraine’s win will also be a clear win for democracy. At the heart of Putin’s rationale for war is the fact that Ukraine presents a democratic success story that is anathema to his corrupt rule. It shows that political plurality and free and fair elections are models that can be applied to countries that were once tethered to Russia’s yoke. This remains something that is, at the same time, irksome to Putin and a longstanding goal of the West.

Finally, Russia has presented a growing threat to the wider world for years. Recent months have seen rhetorical aggression aimed at the Baltic countries, Sweden, Finland, Poland and the Czech Republic to name but a few. By giving Ukraine the weapons it needs to legitimately crush Putin's army while it invades Ukrainian soil, western countries will reduce the future threat to themselves at the same time.

The West's continued support of Ukraine's battle is not only the right thing to do morally – it is also the best thing to do strategically.

Paul Niland is an Irish journalist based in Ukraine. He is the founder of the country’s national suicide prevention hotline, Lifeline Ukraine

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Putin’s Playbook: Civilians As Targets

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Fri, 03/06/2022 - 8:45pm in

On the 100th day of Putin’s invasion, Sascha Lavin considers how and why the Russian President has pursued a brutal war against civilian populations in Ukraine and beyond

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As Russia approaches its 100th day of its Ukrainian invasion, new data confirms that President Vladimir Putin is reusing Russia’s tactics in previous military campaigns by purposefully targeting civilians. 

Since the Russian invasion of Ukraine in February, there has been a shift towards devastating explosive violence in towns and cities compared to the previous stage of the conflict after 2014.

New analysis by the charity Action on Armed Violence (AOAV) has revealed that the percentage of explosive weapons used in populated areas has almost doubled from the pre-invasion violence. In the seven years from the annexation of Donbas and Crimea in 2014 to the invasion of Ukraine this year, 43% of all explosive incidents in Ukraine occurred in populated areas, but since February this has soared to 79%. 

The study – based on the monitoring of 5,251 fatalities in Ukraine since 2014, as recorded by English-language media – also shows Russian forces’ increased use of ground and air weaponry systems in cities and towns.

There has been a 90% proportional increase in the use of ground-launched explosive weapons in Ukraine’s urban areas, as cities like Mariupol have come under intense bombardment in recent months. These weapons, including Grads and mortars, can be inaccurate and imprecise, leading to an immense risk of civilian harm. 

Ukraine’s President, Volodymyr Zelensky, called the indiscriminate bombardment of his country’s urban areas “a genocide”, while Poland’s President Andrzej Duda has said that the Russian invasion bears “the features of a genocide – it aims at eliminating and destroying a nation”.  

And eliminating and destroying a nation is precisely what Putin is determined to do, according to former US national security council official Fiona Hill. “A Ukraine that’s left in a rubble, that’s dependent on handouts from the international community, that’s left in fragments territorially… can be cast as a victory for Putin,” she said in an interview with Tortoise. 

Putin’s aim replicates the ‘Grozny model’ – a tactic of occupy, annihilate and rule – first applied in Chechnya and later in Syria, employing indiscriminate explosive violence to cause mass civilian casualties and destroy cities. 

Charles Lister a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute, recently tweeted that he had repeatedly heard influential military and diplomatic Russian figures describe Gronzy as the archetypal example of military success. The UN described Grozny as the most destroyed city in the world following the Second Chechen War – Putin’s first military conflict as Prime Minister. 

In Syria, Putin’s planes targeted residential buildings, schools, hospitals and markets, or - as a spokesperson for the White Helmets put it – “everything that provides life and sustainability for civilians”.

Weaponsing Refugees

When towns and cities are targeted, civilians overwhelmingly bear the brunt of violence: a previous study by AOAV found that civilians accounted for 91% of those killed or injured by explosive weapons in urban areas worldwide in the decade since 2011.  

At least 4,031 civilians are confirmed to have been killed in Ukraine since Russian troops invaded on 24 February, with another 4,735 injured, though the UN monitoring mission admitted that the true numbers were probably “considerably higher”. 

Russia’s indiscriminate attacks are “a clear attempt by the Russian military to do exactly what they did in Syria”, says Lister. Since 2015, Russian attacks in Syria have killed at least 4,711 Syrian civilians – and as many as 24,746 – according to the civilian harm monitoring group Airwars

The purpose of these tactics, Lister told the Washington-based outlet Grid, is to “create conditions in which the civilian population flees en masse, then creating conditions in which eventually, even the largest urban territories will end up falling under their control.”

This strategy benefits Russia not only because civilians leave Ukraine, but also because they go elsewhere. By forcing civilians into neighbouring countries, Putin hopes that the additional pressure on resources will influence the geo-political aims of these countries and force the West – and therefore Ukraine – to bow to Russia.  

The Russian invasion of Ukraine has triggered the fastest-growing refugee crisis in Europe since the Second World War. Bart MJ Szewczyk, a professor at Sciences Po and German Marshall Fund fellow, predicts that up to 10 million Ukrainian refugees could eventually flee Putin’s bombs – roughly a quarter of the population of Ukraine. 

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This is not the first time that Putin has attempted to create a mass displacement of people – the weaponsing of refugees is also evident in the Syrian conflict, where more than half of the country’s total population are displaced after more than a decade of conflict and 5.4 million refugees are hosted in neighbouring countries. 

“Together, Russia and the Assad regime are deliberately weaponsing migration in an attempt to overwhelm European structures and break European resolve,” NATO’s former top commander in Europe, Philip Breedlove, told a US Senate Armed Services Committee. 

Referring to the prevalence of indiscriminate attacks, he said: “I can’t find any other reason for them other than to cause refugees to be on the move and make them someone else’s problem”. 

Putin ally, Belaurusian dictator Alexander Lukashenko, was also accused of pursuing a deliberate strategy of pushing refugees into neighbouring countries last year. The European Commission warned that Belarus was luring migrants to Minsk and encouraging them to cross into Europe, with reports of Belarusian soldiers cutting through border fencing at night to allow migrants to cross into Poland. 

By turning Ukrainian civilians into targets, refugees and bargaining tools, Putin is using the tactics he honed in previous wars. 

The new report by AOAV adds to the body of evidence that Putin will continue to wage war directly against Ukrainian civilians. One hundred days after the first Russian tanks crossed the border, the trauma inflicted on Ukrainians shows no signs of subsiding.

Iain Overton, executive director of AOAV, also leads the Byline Intelligence Team.

This article was produced by the Byline Intelligence Team – a collaborative investigative project formed by Byline Times with The Citizens. If you would like to find out more about the Intelligence Team and how to fund its work, click on the button below.

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100 Days of Tragedy and Triumph

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Fri, 03/06/2022 - 7:00pm in

In the first instalment of two reports on Russia’s invasion, Tom Mutch describes the barbarity of Putin’s aggression, and the resilience of Ukraine and its people

“I don’t think I’ll ever feel truly safe again,” Alina Victorovka from Kharkiv tells me as our bus winds its way from Ukraine to Moldova.

The young woman, a 24-year-old acrobat dressed in a red top and black pants, had the same vacant expression I’ve seen thousands of times in Ukraine: eyes wide but unfocused, as if unable to process the reality around us.

She had arrived in Kharkiv to visit her family shortly before the war broke out and had spent 10 days sheltering in a village just outside the city limits, before fleeing to the safer conurbation of Dnipro in central Ukraine.

“It is a bad dream I just keep wanting to wake up from,” she says. Despite now being safe, she knows that what she saw in Ukraine will haunt her for the rest of her life.

It seems absurd now, but the month proceeding the war passed leisurely. I arrived on 22 January and my colleagues and I spent our time at fashion shows and bar crawls and nice restaurants all while the grim prognostications of invasion loomed ever closer.

In the port town of Mariupol, which I visited at the outbreak of the war, there were no signs of extra military preparations or provisioning in hospitals – let alone stockpiling of supplies. The only unnerving sign came by virtue of an old wives’ tale – that dogs bark when death is near. The dogs of Mariupol barked non-stop, day and night.

One bored resident told me, “we’ve been at war here for eight years already” – so what worse could happen?

Within weeks, Mariupol would be transformed into a dystopia comparable to Aleppo or Grozny, both cities previously levelled by the Russian Armed Forces.

We were living “an absurd double life”, Julia Tymoshenko, a 22-year-old consultant, told me when a banal normal life coexisted alongside frantic preparations for the worst. She described people returning from regular days at work to discussions of the nearest bomb shelter and possible evacuation routes.

We woke up on 24 February to the sounds of missile strikes throughout Kyiv. Within 24 hours, the city went from a thriving metropolis to a deserted war zone. Standing upon a viewpoint in the centre of the city you could see the rising black smoke from a battle over Hostomel airfield. The Russians had dropped in paratroopers in an attempt to secure a landing zone to ferry soldiers and heavy armour straight to the fight.

At night, we could hear gun battles as saboteurs disguised as Ukrainian soldiers tried to assassinate Zelensky. For those first days, we slept in metro stations that had been converted overnight into bomb shelters. These huge structures up to 70 metres deep had been designed to survive a nuclear strike. Down here, with the huge steel blast doors closed off, we had been sealed away from the world.

Over one and a half million people would go on to leave the city in the coming weeks while checkpoints, sandbags, tank traps and sniper tests popped up throughout the city. At that time, Vladimir Putin’s forces were expected to overrun the capital by the end of the week. Along with most other reporters, I left after a few days to the western Ukrainian city of Lviv and saw lines of people stretching for dozens of miles desperately trying to cross the Polish border. Some of the asylum seekers were waiting for up to four days in the cold of the Ukrainian winter.

But something strange and unexpected happened. Rather than collapse under overwhelming pressure, the Ukrainian nation turned out to be more unified than ever. President Zelensky remained in Kyiv rather than fleeing as per US and UK officials’ advice, and became a unifying figurehead overnight in a country previously fraught with internal divisions.

There were no high-profile defections in the country’s leadership to the Russian side and the Ukrainian army held its own on all fronts. Yes, the Russian troops had established a foothold outside Kyiv in the town of Bucha – soon to become notorious for a massacre committed there – but the Ukrainians were able to destroy their logistics chains flowing from Belarus.

A notorious 40-mile Russian column ran aground on the road to Kyiv, picked off easily by mobile Ukrainian units equipped with Western-supplied anti-tank weapons.

Realising that Kyiv was unlikely to fall and feeling guilty for leaving, I travelled back several days later in the company of Stephanie, a German journalist, and a small group of Ukrainian men who had dropped their families at the border and were heading back to the fight.

One of these men was Gul, originally a Pakistani who had settled with a Ukrainian wife and learned the language. Another was Slava, who was born in Ukraine and spoke very little English, so we communicated via Google Translate. He said he was fighting so his five-year-old son could grow up in a free country. He showed us a photo of his family and said that even if he died “at least my son will grow up to be proud of me”.

The Paranoia of War

By then, it was evident to see how and why Ukraine was managing to survive against all the odds. The Russian invasion’s brutality meant that the country saw this as a truly existential national struggle worth dying for – hugely boosting morale. Ukraine’s infrastructure had also proved much more resilient than expected. The train system had managed to run almost completely undisturbed, ferrying millions of passengers west to safety. We were still getting mobile internet even in remote regions of the journey and card payments continued to work as normal.

The country discovered the unity and efficiency that had eluded it only in the worst of the war. In some respects, the nation in fact functioned much better.

I travelled the country over the next few weeks in the company of a few other freelancers as the Ukrainians stopped and then turned around the Russian advance. We saw the port city of Odesa as it was turned into a fortress – the street to its famous Opera House fortified with tank traps and sandbags.

In Mykolaiv, we met civilians in a hospital injured by Russian cluster munitions. Constant artillery shelling accompanied our visit, not that it phased the local governor, Vitali Kim. One friend here said he was the only Ukrainian politician who could compete with Zelensky for heart-throb status.

But it was only when we reached Kharkiv that we appreciated the scale of devastation in Ukraine. The city had suffered from relentless artillery barrages. Few buildings could be discerned from the rubble.

The second largest and entirely Russian-speaking city in eastern Ukraine once had a significant number of citizens who were sympathetic to Moscow, while the region had consistently voted for Russian-leaning politicians. Vladimir Putin would have called it part of his ‘Russkiy mir’ which translates to ‘Russian world’ or ‘Russian peace’, which some citizens held as a sincere belief. Now, however, people would only use it with irony: “this is Russian peace” they would say, as they pointed to a destroyed apartment block.

Now, Russia is hated here even more than in the West.

People described how friends and relatives in Russia would simply refuse to believe what was happening to Kharkiv. Either the footage of the destruction was fake, they were told, or it was secretly inflicted by the Ukrainian Nazis.

Back in Ukraine, however, any lingering pro-Putin sentiment evaporated with his first bombing runs.

We had our first bad run-ins with Ukrainian forces here, too. Despite a genuinely high level of professionalism, some had begun to crack under the pressure. The day we arrived was the first day in a while that a temporary booze ban had been lifted, and it showed.

Towards the end of our day in Kharkiv, we were walking with our fixer-driver and a local Kharkiv woman who had been showing us around when a stumbling cop ran out at me shouting in Russian and pointing his assault rifle at my head. “Why do you have a camera?” he screamed as spittle flew out of his mouth. He grabbed my camera and began stripping out the battery and the memory card. “Why are you talking to people here?” When we explained that we were journalists he demanded “but why do journalists need to talk to people? Why do they need to take photos?”

We could smell the alcohol on his breath, but we were saved by the intervention of his visibly embarrassed colleagues, who checked our credentials before handing back the camera.

Later that night, we had just sat down to relax with a beer in Dnipro when suddenly our door burst open, and four men charged into the room. The lead man was wearing a balaclava and his pistol was soon at my head. The others carried assault rifles and screamed at us to get on the floor. Neighbours had seen a couple of young men they didn’t know and called the Ukrainian security services. Minutes later, we were lying on the ground with guns to our heads, being searched for weapons. They quickly realised we were reporters and after a few questions let us go.

Months of stress were taking its toll, manifesting through suspicion, exhaustion and paranoia.

Passing back through Lviv, I was struck by how calm everything had become. The west of Ukraine had been mostly untouched by the rest of the war. Cafes and bars were open while throngs of people crowded the streets. It was difficult to believe this city was in a war zone; only the odd soldier or occasional makeshift fortification gave any indication of the conflict raging in the rest of the country.

The day before I left, I spoke with Tymoshenko again who had by then relocated to Lviv. “You know everyone from the West thought we would lose. But my father got it right. He was never afraid. He served in the Soviet Army and told me before the war that the Russian army was weak and that it had been hollowed out by corruption and nothing worked like it was supposed to.”

She said that whatever happened in the war, “I think it’s important for me to stay in Ukraine. It is what I can do to help.”

I took the bus to Poland utterly shattered. A month of war had felt like a year. Fireworks in the main square in Krakow sounded like artillery. This was late March, when Ukraine was pushing the Russians away from Kyiv only to discover evidence of war crimes in the occupied towns. Two weeks later, I was on the train back to the capital.

Tom’s second report on the first 100 days of the Ukraine war will be published next week

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Russia’s Deadly War on Journalists

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Tue, 31/05/2022 - 8:55pm in

The horrifying reports of journalists being deliberately targeted by Russian forces in Ukraine form part of Putin and his allies' long war against the press, Sian Norris reports

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Russia has killed at least 32 journalists since it invaded Ukraine, with a further nine journalists injured and 15 missing.

The latest casualty was a French journalist reporting on evacuation efforts in Luhansk. Frederic Leclerc-Imhoff suffered a "fatal wound to the neck" when shrapnel pierced an armed vehicle. 

Eight of the 32 deaths recorded by the Institute of Mass Information (IMI), a Ukrainian media advocacy NGO, involved journalists who were killed while carrying out their professional duties. Of those, three journalists were Ukrainians and five were foreign citizens. A further 22 journalists have been killed as combatants or as a result of Russian shelling. 

The first journalist to be killed while doing his job was Yevhen Sakun, a LIVE channel cameraman who died on 1 March in a Russian missile strike on a TV tower in Kyiv. 

His death was followed by the killings of Brent Renaud, Pierre Zakrzewski, Oleksandra Kuvshynova, Oksana Baulina, Maxim Levin, and Mantas Kvedaravicius.

The IMI has also recorded nine incidents of journalists being kidnapped. One, known as ‘Nikita’, alleges that he was also tortured with electric shocks. Other journalists have been threatened with torture and the IMI has collected evidence of multiple online threats made against media workers, including 50 death threats. 

These threats, as well as the impact of strikes targeting media infrastructure, have led to the closure of 113 regional Ukrainian media outlets. They include newspapers in Donetsk, Zakarpattia, Luhansk, Lviv, Mykolaiv, Odesa, Poltava, Kherson, Kharkiv, Khmelnytsky, Chernihiv, Chernivtsi, Zaporizhzhia region and Kropyvnytsky city. 

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The Disinformation War

Targeting journalists and shutting down media outlets form part of a wider disinformation war being waged by Vladimir Putin’s regime as his invasion of Ukraine continues. 

Dismantling trusted news sources and undermining the free press with threats an​​d violence allows disinformation to flourish and democratic norms to break down. Intimidation also creates a chilling effect that makes it harder for journalists to report the facts and hold power to account. 

But this is nothing new to the Russian President and his allies.

Since Putin first became President in 2000, 25 journalists have been murdered in Russia, according to data collected by the Committee to Protect Journalists. Independent broadcasters such as Rain have been forced to close. Journalists covering pro-opposition demos have been subjected to what Reporters Without Borders called “preventive visits” as well as searches of their homes.

One such visit to the home of Sergie Smirnov – editor of Mediazona, a leading online source of reporting on police and judicial abuses – led to his hard drive being confiscated by police.

At least four more journalists have been charged with “violating public health norms” and accused of urging Russians to participate in pro-opposition demonstrations. They include Mediazona publisher Piotr Verzilov; sports presenter Nikita Belogolovtsev; and Tatiana Felgengauer, a reporter for independent radio station Echo of Moscow.

In contrast, state-supporting TV channels such as RT and Russia-One repeat regime propaganda about the invasion of Ukraine – spreading disinformation about Russia’s actions, motivations and the conflict.

Social media has also played a disturbing role in spreading disinformation. Byline Times revealed how Facebook continues to allow the man known as ‘Putin’s Rasputin’, Alexandr Dugin, to post conspiracist content on the social network. Meanwhile, DW.com uncovered how a website called 'War On Fake', as well as its associated Telegram page, was spreading fake news about Ukraine. 

A Global Assault

Perhaps unsurprisingly, many world leaders who have expressed support for Putin or who have at least failed to condemn Russian aggression in Ukraine, are in the business of silencing the free press. 

The most notorious journalist assassinations of recent years were the killings of American journalist Marie Colvin and French photojournalist Remi Ochlik in Baba Amr, Syria, in February 2012. The deaths were no accident. Putin is one of Syrian President Bashir al-Assad's closest allies.

In a civil case in the US, Judge Amy Berman Jackson of the US District Court in Washington D.C. found that Colvin had been "deliberately targeted because of her profession, for the purpose of silencing those reporting on the growing opposition movement in the country”.

The Belarussian dictator Alexander Lukashenko is Putin’s key ally in Europe and has imprisoned at least 31 journalists, including those who covered pro-democracy protests following the 2020 election. They include Katsyaryna Andreyeva and Darya Chultsova who were sentenced for two years after publishing a live broadcast of clashes between police and mourners of a killed protestor. 

Turkey has the highest numbers of journalists behind bars – 293 in 2021. The mass incarceration of journalists was precipitated by the 2016 failed coup, which gave the authoritarian leader President Tayyip Erdoğan an excuse to jail media workers, academics and intellectuals who he deemed was a threat to his regime. 

Erdoğan treads a fine line in his support for both Putin and Ukraine, but moved to block attempts by Finland and Sweden to join NATO – a position shared by Russia. 

Saudi Arabia’s repression of free speech is well-documented, as is its support for Putin’s Russia – the two countries partner on Opec+, a multinational effort of oil-rich countries to better coordinate oil production and stabilise global prices.

Jamal Khashoggi, a Saudi dissident, journalist, columnist for The Washington Post, former editor of Al-Watan and former general manager and editor-in-chief of the Al-Arab News Channel, was assassinated by agents of the Saudi Government in 2018. The number of imprisoned journalists and bloggers in Saudi Arabia has tripled since 2017 and now stands at 28 journalists. 

Another increasingly authoritarian leader with pro-Putin leanings is India’s President Narendra Modi. The leader of the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party has overseen an assault on press freedom, despite him saying in 2014 that he was committed to freedom of speech. A total of 67 journalists were arrested in 2020, while hundreds more were attacked. Seven are currently in prison.

Women who are critical of the Government face fierce online trolling and threats. These include Delhi-based freelance journalist Neha Dixit who says she has been "stalked, openly threatened with rape and murder, viciously trolled". The freelance journalist Rohini Singh has reported receiving rape and death threats. Rana Ayyub, an investigative journalist who has been critical of Modi’s Government, was barred from leaving India earlier this year and has long been the subject of threats and intimidation.

Modi has been criticised for his support of Putin.

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Boris Johnson ‘Bending Rules’ to Protect Alexander Lebedev as Russian Oligarch Cuts UK Ties

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Tue, 31/05/2022 - 6:17am in

The Former KGB officer appears to be cutting his financial ties to the UK as Johnson’s Government refuses to join Canada in sanctioning him, reports Adam Bienkov

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Boris Johnson has been accused by Labour of "bending the rules" to protect his personal associate, the Russian oligarch Alexander Lebedev, as the former KGV officer continues to cut his financial ties to the UK.

Lebedev was recently sanctioned by the Canadian Government which described him as one of the "key members of Putin's inner circle" who had “directly enabled Vladimir Putin’s senseless war in Ukraine”.

However, Johnson's Government has so far refused to take any similar action against Lebedev, whose son Evgeny is a close friend of the Prime Minister.

A spokesman for the Prime Minister told Byline Times last week that the UK had taken a "different judgement" about Lebedev to their Canadian allies.

However, the refusal means that Alexander Lebedev has been free to cut his financial ties with the UK.

Companies House records show that two days after Canada announced they would be sanctioning him, Lebedev ceased to be a director of Independent Print Limited.

The company is connected to the Independent Newspaper, which is partly owned by his son Evgeny Lebedev.

Records seen by Byline Times show that within days Alexander Lebedev had also cut his connections to the Lebedev Foundation charity, which has now applied to be struck off the register.

Labour's Deputy Leader Angela Rayner told Byline Times that the Government were being "too slow and too soft" to target Lebedev and others linked to Putin.

“The Conservatives have been too slow and too soft in issuing sanctions to those with links to Putin", she said.

"Following UK Ministers’ repeated refusal to follow Canada’s lead in sanctioning Alexander Lebedev, it now appears this former KGB agent and longstanding acquaintance of Boris Johnson is being allowed to move his cash with impunity before Ministers of the Crown take any action.

"This looks like yet another case of this Prime Minister bending the rules to protect his friends."

Johnson has met with Alexander Lebedev on multiple occasions, including at a party held by his son Evgeny in his Italian villa.

In 2018, the then Foreign Secretary left his security detail behind in order to attend the event, held just days after a Nato meeting to discuss Russia’s poisoning of Sergei Skripal in the UK.

Johnson also ennobled Alexander’s son Evgeny in 2020, despite warnings by the UK’s security services.

Multiple reports suggest that MI6 initially advised against Lebedev’s appointment due to concerns about Alexander Lebedev’s suspected links to Putin.

As Byline Times first reported, this advice was changed following a private meeting between Evgeny Lebedev and Johnson, of which no minutes were kept.

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Alexander Lebedev and Evgeny Lebedev. Photo: WENN Rights Ltd / Alamy

The Prime Minister recently refused to comply with a vote by MPs ordering him to release details of the advice he received from the security services against placing Evgeny in the House of Lords.

The Labour Party accused the Government of a “cover-up” for refusing to release the information.

Correspondence revealed by Byline Times earlier this year showed how Evgeny Lebedev built a close relationship with Johnson over the course of a decade.

The letters show that Lebedev lobbied Johnson to support a new Russian arts festival while he was Mayor of London, which he said had “substantial support from the Russian Government”.

Johnson, who attended dozens of dinners, parties, drinks and meetings with Lebedev during that period also told the newspaper proprietor that he would “thrilled” to secure his support.

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Moscow Suffers its Most High Profile Defection Yet

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Tue, 31/05/2022 - 5:43am in

The Russian invasion of Ukraine is now over 100 days old. When the war began,...

What Man Has Made of Man: Confessions of an Optimist

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Fri, 13/05/2022 - 9:04pm in

Alexandra Hall Hall considers the mistakes she has made in believing that the arc of history was travelling in a more progressive direction

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Lines Written in Early Spring

I heard a thousand blended notes,

While in a grove I sat reclined,

In that sweet mood when pleasant thoughts

Bring sad thoughts to the mind.

To her fair works did Nature link

The human soul that through me ran;

And much it grieved my heart to think

What man has made of man.

By William Wordsworth

Much has been written about the many misjudgements of Russian President Vladimir Putin in launching his invasion of Ukraine. He is regarded as having over-estimated the strength and capability of his own military, and the ease with which they would be able to defeat Ukrainian forces. He under-estimated the courage and resilience of the Ukrainian people, and the inspiring leadership of President Volodymyr Zelensky. He also grossly miscalculated the reaction of the West. He believed that NATO had become so divided, distracted and demoralised by problems at home and abroad that it would never be able to muster the will or the unity to mount a strong or sustained response to support Ukraine.

Putin is now suffering the consequences of his many errors. His forces are suffering numerous setbacks in Ukraine. Russia’s economy is being buffeted by sanctions. Russia’s international standing is undermined. Putin’s personal legacy, at least outside Russia, is in tatters. But while there is a certain grim satisfaction in seeing Putin proved wrong on so many counts, I ask, who amongst us can really claim to have got many of the big calls right either?

Certainly, I would argue that many of us have also been surprised by how things have turned out in Ukraine so far. I don’t think many of us expected the Russian army to fare so badly, or the Ukrainians to mount such a heroic resistance. The very fact that Zelensky apparently rejected a US proposal to take refuge in a neighbouring country – prompting his famous statement “I need weapons, not a ride” – suggests many assumed his Government would crumble.

I think many of us have also been pleasantly surprised by the robustness of the Western response to the conflict. Who could have imagined, just a few weeks ago, millions of Ukrainian refugees being welcomed into private homes across Europe with minimal popular backlash; Germany blocking Nordstream 2 and sending weapons to Ukraine; the UK clamping down on Russian money and oligarchs; the EU imposing punishing sanctions and working to end its dependency on Russian oil and gas; the US overcoming its domestic political divides to lead a strong international response; and Sweden and Finland talking about joining NATO?

Yet, as I survey the current geopolitical scene, I feel no sense of smugness or superiority, but instead a deep worry about the many other misjudgments I have made, which have far less positive implications.

For example, high on feelings of national pride, and the emotions generated by the spirit and success of the London Olympics in 2012, I did not foresee that four years later my country would descend into bitter infighting and rancour over the Brexit referendum. I also never imagined that six years later, Brexit would still not be “done”; that people would still be arguing over the rights and wrongs of that vote; and that our society would if anything be even more divided.

I also misjudged the extent to which Brexit-supporting politicians on both sides of the Chamber were willing to mislead the British public by claiming we could “have our cake and eat it”. Or, for that matter, how easily so many people were gulled by these false promises and lies.

I misjudged the extent to which Brexiters were willing to slander and insult political opponents as “enemies of the people” or “out of touch elites”. I also never anticipated that they would claim a mandate to drive through the hardest form of Brexit, instead of trying to lead a process of national consultation and reconciliation, to bridge some of the Brexit divides.

George Orwell’s books 1984 and Animal Farm are still on bestseller lists, not as cautionary tales about what once happened in the past, but as a troubling sign of what many fear might be happening in the present.

I miscalculated the extent to which Brexit politicians were willing to act so duplicitously, claiming the intention to sustain a good relationship with the EU, while continuing to blame the EU for some of the entirely foreseen negative impacts of Brexit, such as greater red tape and bureaucracy. I miscalculated the ability of opposition political parties to highlight the flaws and inconsistencies in the Government’s approach. I miscalculated their ability to offer a credible alternative, attractive to the electorate.

I underestimated our current Government’s brazenness in continuing to downplay the impact of Brexit on the Good Friday Agreement. I underestimated their lack of shame in misrespresenting some of the details of the Northern Ireland Protocol. I underestimated their shamelessness in trying to shift onto the EU the responsibility for fixing the current problems with the Protocol, even though these were created by our own Government, through its own choices.

I never anticipated that having sold the Withdrawal Agreement to the British people as a great success, barely two years later the politicians who negotiated it would be trying to walk away from its terms. I never believed that a country which presented itself to the world as a ‘force for good’ and a stalwart defender of international law, would itself threaten to renege on a treaty that it had signed. I underestimated the extent to which a British government would be willing to act in such bad faith towards neighbours and allies.

I am also guilty of being complacent about the strength of our own democracy. I had assumed that the kind of populist demagoguery seen in some other Western democracies recently would not be possible in the UK. I over-relied on a sense of innate decency amongst most British politicians, to act as a check on executive overreach, and prevent breaches of the norms and conventions of our unwritten constitution.

In particular, I had always assumed that British politicians would honour the convention to treat their political opponents with respect. I assumed that a UK Prime Minister would never wilfully lie to the Queen, or prorogue Parliament unlawfully. I assumed that a UK Prime Minister asking for great sacrifices of the British public during a pandemic crisis would scrupulously adhere to those same rules himself. I assumed that politicians found guilty of breaking the law or lying to Parliament would step down, in accordance with the Ministerial Code. I misjudged the extent to which Brexit had so poisoned our politics that it has become almost impossible to acknowledge any good in the other side, or accept any mistakes as honest ones.

I also always trusted that even if parliamentary standards began to erode, other institutions in our democracy would hold our government to account. I assumed that our free press would always expose wrongdoing. But I underestimated the extent to which much of our press has been taken over by vested interests, with unhealthy connections and loyalty to certain political parties. I misjudged the extent to which this would lead many of our newspapers to shamefully slant their coverage of events to the benefit of one political party or another.

I also overestimated the extent to which our society has become more tolerant and accepting of diversity. I never anticipated any UK Government indulging in grotesque dog-whistle racist politics, and tacitly encouraging hostility towards migrants. I never imagined that a country which had helped to draft both the European Convention on Human Rights and the UN Convention on Refugees would ever seek to evade its obligations under those treaties.

On the international level, I never expected in my lifetime to see a conflict in Europe reminiscent of the horrors of World War Two. I never expected to see a Russian President celebrate his country’s defeat of Naziism while allowing his troops to use Nazi methods of brutality themselves. I never expected to see the Taliban return to power in Afghanistan, and in less than a year remove the right to education for women and girls, and require them to be veiled from head to toe. I never expected a politician from the National Front, deeply opposed to the EU, coming so close to winning the presidency in France. I never expected ‘genocide’ to be a term which applied to conflicts in the 21st Century. I never expected our global community to be struggling to protect the very climate we all depend on for survival.

But, then again, I never expected to see an American President reject the outcome of an election and encourage a physical assault on the buildings at the heart of American democracy. I never expected medieval attitudes to women to resurface in America – with a leaked Supreme Court memorandum on abortion containing references to judicial rulings from the 13th Century.

I never expected common-sense education and discussion about sexual orientation and preferences to be recharacterised as “grooming” of young children by sexual predators. I never expected the long-overdue debate about the history of racism and slavery in America to be badged as extremist, or harmful to white people. I never expected Americans to be campaigning to remove books from libraries, or a state governor to set up a hotline for pupils to report teachers allegedly deviating from approved educational material.

I never expected America to remain so tolerant of the shockingly high number of mass shootings caused by the widespread private ownership of guns.  I could never have imagined living in a country where state officials matter-of-factly debate different methods of executing people sentenced to death.

In fact, when I step back to reflect, I realise I have been guilty of gross naïvety on many, many fronts.

Above all, I trusted in human beings learning from past mistakes and becoming better over time. I repeatedly and misguidedly trusted in the slogan ‘never again’. I put misplaced confidence in democracy, good governance, respect for human rights and peace steadily spreading around the world, as nations and communities became better educated and more intertwined. I trusted that nationalism, racism, misogyny and other prejudices would recede, and tolerance, diversity and mutual respect for each other would spread.

I never expected the degree to which, in the 21st Century, we would still have so many charlatans and corrupt officials in public office. I never thought we would still have so many dictatorships and military-led regimes around the world, still able to brutalise and suppress their people with impunity. I never expected ‘great power’ politics to be an ongoing theme.

And I could never imagine living at a time when words have become so twisted, trust in institutions has become so eroded, and truth has become so relative, that facts are no longer facts, but merely interpretations. George Orwell’s books 1984 and Animal Farm are still on bestseller lists, not as cautionary tales about what once happened in the past, but as a troubling sign of what many fear might be happening in the present.

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So, yes, Putin has got many things wrong in his lifetime. Hopefully, perhaps that also means he may misjudge the strength of his own position at home. Conventional wisdom says it will be hard for any internal opposition to overthrow him, but perhaps we will be proved wrong here too.

But if I have learned anything from the last few years, it is that wishful thinking is a mistake. It is wiser not to rely on man’s better nature prevailing, or to assume that bad things won’t happen. The lesson from history is that bad people frequently get away with things they shouldn’t; and, while we can certainly hope and strive for the best, we should always be prepared for the worst.

As William Wordsworth wrote at the end of his famous poem:

“Have I not reason to lament

What man has made of man?”

Alexandra Hall Hall is a former British diplomat with more than 30 years experience, with postings in Bangkok, Washington, Delhi, Bogota and Tbilisi. She resigned from the Foreign Office in December 2019 because she felt unable to represent the Government’s position on Brexit with integrity

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