Elon Musk: Diversity-based hiring is antisemitic

KRAKÓW, Poland — Elon Musk has upped his war on woke by saying that diverse hiring policies are “fundamentally antisemitic” and discriminatory, shortly after a private visit to the Auschwitz-Birkenau Nazi concentration camp.

The controversial tech billionaire was speaking at a European Jewish Association (EJA) conference in the Polish city of Kraków, amid rising criticism that his social media platform — X, formerly Twitter — has allowed rampant hate speech to spread. Musk himself sparked outrage in November when he publicly agreed with an antisemitic tweet claiming that Jewish communities have been “pushing the exact kind of dialectical hatred against whites that they claim to want people to stop using against them.”

While his trip to Poland allowed him to push back at the charges of antisemitism, he also seized the opportunity to turn his fire against one of his favorite bugbears: “Diversity, equity and inclusion” policies.

“Always be wary of any name that sounds like it could come out of a George Orwell book. That’s never a good sign,” Musk told American right-wing commentator Ben Shapiro, who joined him onstage. “Sure, diversity, equity and inclusion all sound like nice words, but what it really means is discrimination on the basis of race, sex, sexual orientation and it’s against merit and thus I think it’s fundamentally antisemitic.”

Musk, who confirmed that he does indeed write all of his own posts on X, has been vocal about his feelings toward diversity, equity and inclusion, including by claiming, without evidence, that diverse hiring initiatives at Boeing and United Airlines have made air travel less safe.

His comments feed into a broader debate on inclusive hiring policies, most especially on U.S. college campuses. The resignation of Harvard President Claudine Gay over a plagiarism scandal was seized upon by Republicans, who claim top schools are examples of American institutions in the throes of a leftist political transformation. Critics argue this radical leftist culture on campuses is stoking antisemitism, and top university leaders hit heavy flak last month for their poor handling of a congressional hearing on the bullying of Jews.

On Monday, Shapiro went easy on Musk, steering the conversation towards meritocracy rather than Musk’s increasingly controversial social media outbursts and allowing the Tesla boss to continue his attacks on a subject he has made a great deal of mileage out of.

“I think we need return to … a focus on merit and it doesn’t matter whether you’re man, woman, what race you are, what beliefs you have, what matters is how good you are at your job or what are your skills,” Musk said.

In defense of X

At the EJA conference — a daylong summit on the rise of antisemitism in the aftermath of the October 7 attack on Israel by Hamas — Musk also defended X against accusations of antisemitism and hate speech, saying freedom of speech must be protected even when controversial. According to the billionaire, who cited audits without offering further details, X has “the least amount of antisemitism” among all social media platforms, adding that TikTok has “five times the amount of antisemitism” that X has.

“Relentless pursuit of the truth is the goal with X,” Musk said. “And allowing people to say what they want to say even if it’s controversial, provided it does not break the law, is the right thing to do.”

Musk has faced widespread criticism over the rise of disinformation and hate content since he bought the social media platform for $44 billion in 2022, criticism that intensified in the weeks following the escalation of the Israel-Hamas war last October.

The reported spread of fake and misleading content on the conflict led the EU to launch an investigation into X. And things got worse for Musk after progressive watchdog group Media Matters published a report alleging that X had run ads for major companies next to neo-Nazi posts.

The Media Matters report and Musk’s endorsement of an antisemitic post sparked a backlash from several public figures and culminated in an advertiser exodus, as multiple companies pulled their ads from the site, including giants such as Apple, IBM, Disney and Coca-Cola. According to a New York Times report, this could result in a loss of up to $75 million for X.

Musk has since apologized for the antisemitic post — admitting he should not have replied to it — and then traveled to Israel to meet with President Isaac Herzog and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, in what could be seen as an apology tour.

Speaking about his visit to Israel, Musk said indoctrinated Hamas fighters have to be “killed or imprisoned” to prevent them from killing more Israelis. And the next step is fighting further indoctrination in Gaza, he added.

“The indoctrination of hate into kids in Gaza has to stop,” Musk said. “I understand the need to invade Gaza, and unfortunately some innocent people will die, there’s no way around it, but the most important thing to ensure is that afterwards the indoctrination … stops.”

According to Gaza’s Health Ministry, Israeli airstrikes and ground attacks have killed over 25,000 Palestinians and wounded more than 60,000 since the attack by Hamas on October 7, in which Israeli officials say the militant group killed over 1,200 nationals and foreigners and took 240 hostages.

Musk said the West has shifted to a mentality that equates smaller, weaker groups with goodness.

“We need to stop the principle that the normally weaker party is always right, this is simply not true,” Musk said. “If you are oppressed or the weaker party it doesn’t mean you’re right.”

Musk — who joked multiple times that he considers himself “Jew by aspiration” and “by association” — was supposed to visit the Auschwitz-Birkenau Nazi concentration camp on Tuesday alongside other speakers and political leaders from the EJA conference, but he instead took a private tour of the site with his young son.

The Auschwitz Museum itself was among one of the entities that had called out Musk for failing to contain antisemitic content.



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Airstrikes are unlikely to deter the Houthis

Jamie Dettmer is opinion editor at POLITICO Europe.

TEL AVIV — In a preemptive bid to warn off Iran and its proxies in the wake of Hamas’ October attacks on southern Israel, United States President Joe Biden had succinctly said: “Don’t.” But his clipped admonition continues to fall on deaf ears.

As Shakespeare’s rueful King Claudius notes, “when sorrows come, they come not single spies but in battalions.” And while exasperated Western powers now try to halt escalation in the Middle East, it is the Iran-directed battalions that are bringing them sorrows.

Raising the stakes at every turn, Tehran is carefully calibrating the aggression of its partners — Hezbollah in Lebanon, Shiite militias in Iraq and Syria, and the Houthis in the Red Sea —ratcheting up to save Hamas from being destroyed by a vengeful Israel. And out of all this needling, it is the Houthis’ more then two dozen attacks in the Red Sea that crossed the line for Western powers — enough to goad the U.S. and the United Kingdom into switching from a defensive posture to launching strikes on dozens of Houthi targets.

As far as Washington and London are concerned, Western retaliation is meant to give teeth to Biden’s October warning, conveying a clear message to Iran: Stop. But why would it?

Privately, the U.S. has reinforced its warning through diplomatic channels. And U.K. Defense Minister Grant Shapps underscored the message publicly, saying the West is “running out of patience,” and the Iranian regime must tell the Houthis and its regional proxies to “cease and desist.”

Nonetheless, it’s highly questionable whether Tehran will heed this advice. There’s nothing in the regime’s DNA to suggest it would back off. Plus, there would be no pain for Iran at the end of it all — the Houthis would be on the receiving end. In fact, Iran has every reason to persist, as it can’t afford to leave Hamas in the lurch. To do so would undermine the confidence of other Iran-backed groups, weakening its disruptive clout in the region.

Also, from Iran’s perspective, its needling strategy of fatiguing and frightening Western powers with the prospect of escalation is working. The specter of a broadening war in the Middle East is terrifying for Washington and European governments, which are beset by other problems. Better for them to press Israel to halt its military campaign in Gaza and preserve the power of Hamas — that’s what Tehran is trying to engineer.

And Iranian mullahs have every reason to think this wager will pay off. Ukraine is becoming a cautionary tale; Western resolve seems to be waning; and the U.S. Congress is mired in partisan squabbling, delaying a crucial aid package for Ukraine — one the Europeans won’t be able to make good on.

So, whose patience will run out first — the West or Iran and its proxies?

Wearing down the Houthis would be no mean feat for the U.S. and the U.K. In 2015, after the resilient Houthis had seized the Yemeni capital of Sana’a, Saudi Arabia thought it could quickly dislodge them with a bombing campaign in northern Yemen. But nearly a decade on, Riyadh is trying to extricate itself, ready to walk away if the Houthis just leave them alone.

The United Arab Emirates was more successful in the country’s south, putting boots on the ground and training local militias in places where the Houthis were already unpopular. But the U.S. and the U.K. aren’t proposing to follow the UAE model — they’ll be following the Saudi one, albeit with the much more limited goal of getting the Houthis to stop harassing commercial traffic in the Red Sea.

Moreover, Western faith in the efficacy of bombing campaigns — especially fitful ones — has proven misplaced before. Bombing campaigns failed to bring Iraq’s Saddam Hussein to heel on their own. And Iran-aligned militias in Iraq and Syria have shrugged off Western airstrikes, seeing them as badges of honor — much like the Houthis, who, ironically, were removed from the U.S. terror list by Biden in 2021. They seem to be relishing their moment in the big leagues.

War-tested, battle-hardened and agile, the Houthis are well-equipped thanks to Iran, and they can expect military replenishment from Tehran. They also have a firm grip on their territory. Like Hamas, the Houthis aren’t bothered by the death and destruction they may bring down on their people, making them particularly difficult to cajole into anything. And if the U.S. is to force the pace, it may well be dragged in deeper, as the only way to stop Iran replenishing the Houthis would be to mount a naval blockade of Yemen.

Few seasoned analysts think the Houthis will cave easily. Tom Sharpe, a former Royal Navy captain and specialist anti-air warfare officer, said he’d suggest “just walk[ing] away.”

“Make going round the Cape the new normal,” he wrote last week, albeit acknowledging he’d expect his advice to be overruled due to the global economic implications. But degrading the Houthis enough to make the Red Sea safe again, he noted, would be “difficult to do without risking a wider regional conflict in which the U.S., U.K. and friends would be seen as fighting on the Israeli side.”

And that is half the problem. Now ensnared in the raging conflict, in the eyes of many in the region, Western powers are seen as enabling the death and destruction being visited on Gaza. And as the civilian death toll in the Palestinian enclave mounts, Israel’s Western supporters are increasingly being criticized for not doing enough to restrain the country, which is determined to ensure Hamas can never repeat what it did on October 7.

Admittedly, Israel is combating a merciless foe that is heedless of the Gazan deaths caused by its actions. The more Palestinians killed, the greater the international outrage Hamas can foment, presenting itself as victim rather than aggressor. But Israel has arguably fallen into Hamas’ trap, with the mounting deaths and burgeoning humanitarian crisis now impacting opinion in the region and more widely.

A recent poll conducted for the Washington Institute for Near East Policy found that 96 percent of the broader Arab world believe Arab nations should now sever ties with Israel. And in Britain, Foreign Secretary David Cameron told a parliamentary panel he feared Israel has “taken action that might be in breach of international law.”

Meanwhile, in addition to issuing warnings to Iran, Hezbollah, and others in the Axis of Resistance to stay out of it, Biden has also cautioned Israeli leaders about wrath — urging the Israeli war Cabinet not to “repeat mistakes” made by the U.S. after 9/11.

However, according to a poll by the Israel Democracy Institute, 75 percent of Jewish Israelis think the country should ignore U.S. demands to shift to a phase of war with reduced heavy bombing in populous areas, and 57 percent support opening a second front in the north and taking the fight to Hezbollah. Additionally, Gallup has found Israelis have lost faith in a two-state solution, with 65 percent of Jewish Israelis opposing an independent Palestinian state.

So, it looks as though Israel is in no mood to relent — and doesn’t believe it can afford to.



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The Middle East is on fire: What you need to know about the Red Sea crisis

On October 7, Hamas fighters launched a bloody attack against Israel, using paragliders, speedboats and underground tunnels to carry out an offensive that killed almost 1,200 people and saw hundreds more taken back to the Gaza Strip as prisoners. 

Almost three months on, Israel’s massive military retaliation is reverberating around the region, with explosions in Lebanon and rebels from Yemen attacking shipping in the Red Sea. Meanwhile, Western countries are pumping military aid into Israel while deploying fleets to protect commercial shipping — risking confrontation with the Iranian navy.

That’s in line with a grim prediction made last year by Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian, who said that Israel’s counteroffensive in Gaza meant an “expansion of the scope of the war has become inevitable,” and that further escalation across the Middle East should be expected. 

What’s happening?

The Israel Defense Forces are still fighting fierce battles for control of the Gaza Strip in what officials say is a mission to destroy Hamas. Troops have already occupied much of the north of the 365-square-kilometer territory, home to around 2.3 million Palestinians, and are now fighting fierce battles in the south.

Entire neighborhoods of densely-populated Gaza City have been levelled by intense Israeli shelling, rocket attacks and air strikes, rendering them uninhabitable. Although independent observers have been largely shut out, the Hamas-controlled Health Ministry claims more than 22,300 people have been killed, while the U.N. says 1.9 million people have been displaced.

On a visit to the front lines, Israeli Defence Minister Yoav Gallant warned that his country is in the fight for the long haul. “The feeling that we will stop soon is incorrect. Without a clear victory, we will not be able to live in the Middle East,” he said.

As the Gaza ground war intensifies, Hamas and its allies are increasingly looking to take the conflict to a far broader arena in order to put pressure on Israel.

According to Seth Frantzman, a regional analyst with the Jerusalem Post and adjunct fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, “Iran is certainly making a play here in terms of trying to isolate Israel [and] the U.S. and weaken U.S. influence, also showing that Israel doesn’t have the deterrence capabilities that it may have had in the past or at least thought it had.”

Northern front

On Tuesday a blast ripped through an office in Dahieh, a southern suburb of the Lebanese capital, Beirut — 130 kilometers from the border with Israel. Hamas confirmed that one of its most senior leaders, Saleh al-Arouri, was killed in the strike. 

Government officials in Jerusalem have refused to confirm Israeli forces were behind the killing, while simultaneously presenting it as a “surgical strike against the Hamas leadership” and insisting it was not an attack against Lebanon itself, despite a warning from Lebanese caretaker Prime Minister Najib Mikati that the incident risked dragging his country into a wider regional war. 

Tensions between Israel and Lebanon have spiked in recent weeks, with fighters loyal to Hezbollah, the Shia Islamist militant group that controls the south of the country, firing hundreds of rockets across the frontier. Along with Hamas, Hezbollah is part of the Iranian-led “Axis of Resistance” that aims to destroy the state of Israel.

In a statement released on Tuesday, Iran’s foreign ministry said the death of al-Arouri, the most senior Hamas official confirmed to have died since October 7, will only embolden resistance against Israel, not only in the Palestinian territories but also in the wider Middle East.

“We’re talking about the death of a senior Hamas leader, not from Hezbollah or the [Iranian] Revolutionary Guards. Is it Iran who’s going to respond? Hezbollah? Hamas with rockets? Or will there be no response, with the various players waiting for the next assassination?” asked Héloïse Fayet, a researcher at the French Institute for International Relations.

In a much-anticipated speech on Wednesday evening, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah condemned the killing but did not announce a military response.

Red Sea boils over

For months now, sailors navigating the narrow Bab- el-Mandeb Strait that links Europe to Asia have faced a growing threat of drone strikes, missile attacks and even hijackings by Iran-backed Houthi militants operating off the coast of Yemen.

The Houthi movement, a Shia militant group supported by Iran in the Yemeni civil war against Saudi Arabia and its local allies, insists it is only targeting shipping with links to Israel in a bid to pressure it to end the war in Gaza. However, the busy trade route from the Suez Canal through the Red Sea has seen dozens of commercial vessels targeted or delayed, forcing Western nations to intervene.

Over the weekend, the U.S. Navy said it had intercepted two anti-ship missiles and sunk three boats carrying Houthi fighters in what it said was a hijacking attempt against the Maersk Hangzhou, a container ship. Danish shipping giant Maersk said Tuesday that it would “pause all transits through the Red Sea until further notice,” following a number of other cargo liners; energy giant BP is also suspending travel through the region.

On Wednesday the Houthis targeted a CMA CGM Tage container ship bound for Israel, according to the group’s military spokesperson Yahya Sarea. “Any U.S. attack will not pass without a response or punishment,” he added. 

“The sensible decision is one that the vast majority of shippers I think are now coming to, [which] is to transit through round the Cape of Good Hope,” said Marco Forgione, director general at the Institute of Export & International Trade. “But that in itself is not without heavy impact, it’s up to two weeks additional sailing time, adds over £1 million to the journey, and there are risks, particularly in West Africa, of piracy as well.” 

However, John Stawpert, a senior manager at the International Chamber of Shipping, noted that while “there has been disruption” and an “understandable nervousness about transiting these routes … trade is continuing to flow.”

“A major contributory factor to that has been the presence of military assets committed to defending shipping from these attacks,” he said. 

The impacts of the disruption, especially price hikes hitting consumers, will be seen “in the next couple of weeks,” according to Forgione. Oil and gas markets also risk taking a hit — the price of benchmark Brent crude rose by 3 percent to $78.22 a barrel on Wednesday. Almost 10 percent of the world’s oil and 7 percent of its gas flows through the Red Sea.

Western response

On Wednesday evening, the U.S., Australia, Bahrain, Belgium, Canada, Denmark, Germany, Italy, Japan, the Netherlands, New Zealand, and the United Kingdom issued an ultimatum calling the Houthi attacks “illegal, unacceptable, and profoundly destabilizing,” but with only vague threats of action.

“We call for the immediate end of these illegal attacks and release of unlawfully detained vessels and crews. The Houthis will bear the responsibility of the consequences should they continue to threaten lives, the global economy, and free flow of commerce in the region’s critical waterways,” the statement said.

Despite the tepid language, the U.S. has already struck back at militants from Iranian-backed groups such as Kataeb Hezbollah in Iraq and Syria after they carried out drone attacks that injured U.S. personnel.

The assumption in London is that airstrikes against the Houthis — if it came to that — would be U.S.-led with the U.K. as a partner. Other nations might also chip in.

Two French officials said Paris is not considering air strikes. The country’s position is to stick to self-defense, and that hasn’t changed, one of them said. French Armed Forces Minister Sébastien Lecornu confirmed that assessment, saying on Tuesday that “we’re continuing to act in self-defense.” 

“Would France, which is so proud of its third way and its position as a balancing power, be prepared to join an American-British coalition?” asked Fayet, the think tank researcher.

Iran looms large

Iran’s efforts to leverage its proxies in a below-the-radar battle against both Israel and the West appear to be well underway, and the conflict has already scuppered a long-awaited security deal between Israel and Saudi Arabia.

“Since 1979, Iran has been conducting asymmetrical proxy terrorism where they try to advance their foreign policy objectives while displacing the consequences, the counterpunches, onto someone else — usually Arabs,” said Bradley Bowman, senior director of Washington’s Center on Military and Political Power. “An increasingly effective regional security architecture, of the kind the U.S. and Saudi Arabia are trying to build, is a nightmare for Iran which, like a bully on the playground, wants to keep all the other kids divided and distracted.”

Despite Iran’s fiery rhetoric, it has stopped short of declaring all-out war on its enemies or inflicting massive casualties on Western forces in the region — which experts say reflects the fact it would be outgunned in a conventional conflict.

“Neither Iran nor the U.S. nor Israel is ready for that big war,” said Alex Vatanka, director of the Middle East Institute’s Iran program. “Israel is a nuclear state, Iran is a nuclear threshold state — and the U.S. speaks for itself on this front.”

Israel might be betting on a long fight in Gaza, but Iran is trying to make the conflict a global one, he added. “Nobody wants a war, so both sides have been gambling on the long term, hoping to kill the other guy through a thousand cuts.”

Emilio Casalicchio contributed reporting.



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Israel’s appetite for high-tech weapons highlights a Biden policy gap

Within hours of the Hamas attack on Israel last month, a Silicon Valley drone company called Skydio began receiving emails from the Israeli military. The requests were for the company’s short-range reconnaissance drones — small flying vehicles used by the U.S. Army to navigate obstacles autonomously and produce 3D scans of complex structures like buildings.

The company said yes. In the three weeks since the attack, Skydio has sent more than 100 drones to the Israeli Defense Forces, with more to come, according to Mark Valentine, the Skydio executive in charge of government contracts.

Skydio isn’t the only American tech company fielding orders. Israel’s ferocious campaign to eliminate Hamas from the Gaza Strip is creating new demand for cutting-edge defense technology — often supplied directly by newer, smaller manufacturers, outside the traditional nation-to-nation negotiations for military supplies.

Already, Israel is using self-piloting drones from Shield AI for close-quarters indoor combat and has reportedly requested 200 Switchblade 600 kamikaze drones from another U.S. company, according to DefenseScoop. Jon Gruen, CEO of Fortem Technologies, which supplied Ukrainian forces with radar and autonomous anti-drone aircraft, said he was having “early-stage conversations” with Israelis about whether the company’s AI systems could work in the dense, urban environments in Gaza.

This surge of interest echoes the one driven by the even larger conflict in Ukraine, which has been a proving ground for new AI-powered defense technology — much of it ordered by the Ukrainian government directly from U.S. tech companies.

AI ethicists have raised concerns about the Israeli military’s use of AI-driven technologies to target Palestinians, pointing to reports that the army used AI to strike more than 11,000 targets in Gaza since Hamas militants launched a deadly assault on Israel on Oct 7.

The Israeli defense ministry did not elaborate in response to questions about its use of AI.

These sophisticated platforms also pose a new challenge for the Biden administration. On Nov. 13, the U.S. began implementing a new foreign policy to govern the responsible military use of such technologies. The policy, first unveiled in the Hague in February and endorsed by 45 other countries, is an effort to keep the military use of AI and autonomous systems within the international law of war.

But neither Israel nor Ukraine are signatories, leaving a growing hole in the young effort to keep high-tech weapons operating within agreed-upon lines.

Asked about Israel’s compliance with the U.S.-led declaration on military AI, a spokesperson for the State Department said “it is too early” to draw conclusions about why some countries have not endorsed the document, or to suggest that non-endorsing countries disagree with the declaration or will not adhere to its principles.

Mark Cancian, a senior adviser with the CSIS International Security Program, said in an interview that “it’s very difficult” to coordinate international agreement between nations on the military use of AI for two reasons: “One is that the technology is evolving so quickly that the description constraints you put on it today may no longer may not be relevant five years from now because the technology will be so different. The other thing is that so much of this technology is civilian, that it’s hard to restrict military development without also affecting civilian development.”

In Gaza, drones are being largely used for surveillance, scouting locations and looking for militants without risking soldiers’ lives, according to Israeli and U.S. military technology developers and observers interviewed for this story.

Israel discloses few specifics of how it uses this technology, and some worry the Israeli military is using unreliable AI recommendation systems to identify targets for lethal operations.

Ukrainian forces have used experimental AI systems to identify Russian soldiers, weapons and unit positions from social media and satellite feeds.

Observers say that Israel is a particularly fast-moving theater for new weaponry because it has a technically sophisticated military, large budget, and — crucially — close existing ties to the U.S. tech industry.

“The difference, now maybe more than ever, is the speed at which technology can move and the willingness of suppliers of that technology to deal directly with Israel,” said Arun Seraphin, executive director of the National Defense Industrial Association’s Institute for Emerging Technologies.

Though the weapons trade is subject to scrutiny and regulation, autonomous systems also raise special challenges. Unlike traditional military hardware, buyers are able to reconfigure these smart platforms for their own needs, adding a layer of inscrutability to how these systems are used.

While many of the U.S.-built, AI-enabled drones sent to Israel are not armed and not programmed by the manufacturers to identify specific vehicles or people, these airborne robots are designed to leave room for military customers to run their own custom software, which they often prefer to do, multiple manufacturers told POLITICO.

Shield AI co-founder Brandon Tseng confirmed that users are able to customize the Nova 2 drones that the IDF is using to search for barricaded shooters and civilians in buildings targeted by Hamas fighters.

Matt Mahmoudi, who authored Amnesty International’s May report documenting Israel’s use of facial recognition systems in Palestinian territories, told POLITICO that historically, U.S. technology companies contracting with Israeli defense authorities have had little insight or control over how their products are used by the Israeli government, pointing to several instances of the Israeli military running its own AI software on hardware imported from other countries to closely monitor the movement of Palestinians.

Complicating the issue are the blurred lines between military and non-military technology. In the industry, the term is “dual-use” — a system, like a drone-swarm equipped with computer-vision, that might be used for commercial purposes but could also be deployed in combat.

The Technology Policy Lab at the Center for a New American Security writes that “dual-use technologies are more difficult to regulate at both the national and international levels” and notes that in order for the U.S. to best apply export controls, it “requires complementary commitment from technology-leading allies and partners.”

Exportable military-use AI systems can run the gamut from commercial products to autonomous weapons. Even in cases where AI-enabled systems are explicitly designed as weapons, meaning U.S. authorities are required by law to monitor the transfer of these systems to another country, the State Department only recently adopted policies to monitor civilian harm caused by these weapons, in response to Congressional pressure.

But enforcement is still a question mark: Josh Paul, a former State Department official, wrote that a planned report on the policy’s implementation was canceled because the department wanted to avoid any debate on civilian harm risks in Gaza from U.S. weapons transfers to Israel.

A Skydio spokesperson said the company is currently not aware of any users breaching its code of conduct and would “take appropriate measures” to mitigate the misuse of its drones. A Shield AI spokesperson said the company is confident its products are not being used to violate humanitarian norms in Israel and “would not support” the unethical use of its products.

In response to queries about whether the U.S. government is able to closely monitor high-tech defense platforms sent by smaller companies to Israel or Ukraine, a spokesperson for the U.S. State Department said it was restricted from publicly commenting or confirming the details of commercially licensed defense trade activity.

Some observers point out that the Pentagon derives some benefit from watching new systems tested elsewhere.

“The great value for the United States is we’re getting to field test all this new stuff,” said CSIS’s Cancian — a process that takes much longer in peacetime environments and allows the Pentagon to place its bets on novel technologies with more confidence, he added.



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The dogs of war are howling in the Middle East

Jamie Dettmer is opinion editor at POLITICO Europe.

BEIRUT — Against a dawning day, just hours after the fatal Gaza hospital explosion that killed hundreds, Israel’s border with Lebanon crackled with shelling and fighter jet strikes as Israeli warplanes responded to an uptick in shelling from Hezbollah.

Regardless of who struck the al-Ahli Arab Hospital, the needle is now rapidly shifting in a dangerous direction. And hopes are being pinned on United States President Joe Biden and Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi, who is set to host an emergency summit in Cairo on Saturday. But the chances of a wider war engulfing Lebanon and the entire region being hurled into violent chaos once more are growing by the hour.

As Hezbollah announced “a day of rage” against Israel, protests have targeted U.S. missions in the region, more embassies in Beirut have started sending off non-essentials staff, and security teams are being flown in to protect diplomatic missions and European NGOs, preparing contingency plans for staff evacuation. An ever-growing sense of dread and foreboding is now gripping the Levant.

Currently, Israel insists the hospital explosion was caused by an errant rocket fired by Islamic Jihad — and the White House agrees. But the Palestinian militant group, which is aligned with Hamas, says this is a “lie and fabrication,” insisting Israel was responsible. Regardless of where the responsibility lies, however, the blast at the hospital — where hundreds of Palestinian civilians were sheltering from days of Israeli airstrikes on the coastal enclave of Gaza — is sending shock waves far and wide.

It has already blown Biden’s trip to the region off course, as his planned Wednesday meeting with Arab leaders in Jordan had to be axed. The meeting was meant to take place after his visit to Israel, where Biden had the tricky task of showing solidarity, while also pressing the country’s reluctant Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to allow humanitarian aid into Gaza.

A statement from the White House said the the decision to cancel the meeting with Jordan’s King Abdullah II, Egypt’s El-Sisi and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas had been jointly made in light of the hospital strike.

But Arab leaders have made clear they had no hope the meeting would be productive. Abbas pulled out first, before Jordan’s Foreign Minister Ayman Safadi suggested a meeting would be pointless. “There is no use in talking now about anything except stopping the war,” he said, referencing Israel’s near-constant bombardment of Gaza.

Scrapping the Jordan stop lost the U.S. leader a major face-to-face opportunity to navigate the crisis, leaving American efforts to stave off a wider conflict in disarray.

The U.S. was already facing tough criticism in the region for being too far in Israel’s corner and failing to condemn the country for civilian deaths in Gaza. Meanwhile, Arab leaders have shrugged off U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s efforts to get them to denounce Hamas — they refuse to label the organization as a terror group, seeing the October 7 attacks as the inevitable consequence of the failure to deliver a two-state solution for Palestinians and lift Israel’s 17-year blockade on Gaza.

Whether anyone can now stop a bigger war is highly uncertain. But there was one word that stood out in Biden’s immediate remarks after the Hamas attacks, and that was “don’t.” “To any country, any organization, anyone thinking of taking advantage of the situation, I have one word,” he said. “Don’t.”

However, this is now being drowned out by furious cries for revenge. Wrath has its grip on all parties in the region, as old hatreds and grievances play out and the tit-for-tat blows accelerate. Much like Mark Antony’s exhortation in Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar,” “Cry ‘Havoc!’, and let slip the dogs of war” is now the sentiment being heard here, obscuring reason and leaving diplomacy struggling in its wake.

In the immediate aftermath of last week’s slaughter, righteous fury had understandably gripped Israelis. Netanyahu channeled that rage, vowing “mighty vengeance” against Hamas for the surprise attacks, pledging to destroy the Iran-backed Palestinian militant group. “Every Hamas terrorist is a dead man,” he said days later.

However, Israel hasn’t officially announced it will launch a ground mission — something it has refrained from doing in recent years due to the risk of losing a high number of soldiers. But it has massed troops and armor along the border, drafted 300,000 reservists — the biggest call-up in decades — and two days after the Hamas attacks, Netanyahu reportedly told Biden that Israel had no choice but to launch a ground operation. Publicly, he warned Israelis the country faced a “long and difficult war.”

The one hope that havoc won’t be unleashed in the region now rests partly — but largely — upon Israel reducing its military goals and deciding not to launch a ground offensive on Gaza, which would be the most likely trigger for Hezbollah and its allies to commence a full-scale attack, either across the southern border or on the Golan Heights.

That was certainly the message from Ahmed Abdul-Hadi, Hamas’ chief representative in Lebanon. He told POLITICO that an Israeli ground offensive in Gaza would be one of the key triggers that could bring Hezbollah fully into the conflict, and that Hamas and Hezbollah are now closely coordinating their responses.

“Hezbollah will pay no attention to threats from anyone against it entering the war; it will ignore warnings to stay out of it. The timing of when Hezbollah wants to enter the war or not will relate to Israeli escalation and incidents on the ground, and especially if Israel tries to enter Gaza on the ground,” he said.

Lebanese politicians are now pinning their hopes on Israel not opting to mount a ground offensive on the densely populated enclave — an operation that would almost certainly lead to a high number of civilian casualties and spark further Arab outrage, in addition to a likely Hezbollah intervention. They see some possibility in Biden’s warning that any move by Israel to reoccupy Gaza would be a “big mistake” — a belated sign that Washington is now trying to impose a limit on Israel’s actions in retaliation for the Hamas attacks.

And how that dovetails with Netanyahu’s stated aim to “demolish Hamas”and “defeat the bloodthirsty monsters who have risen against us to destroy us” is another one of the major uncertainties that will determine if the dogs of war will be fully unleashed.

At the moment, however, an apparent pause in Israeli ground operations is giving some a reason to hope. While assembled units are on standby and awaiting orders, on Tuesday an Israel military spokesman suggested a full-scale ground assault might not be what’s being prepared.

Michael Young, an analyst at the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut, suspects a “rethink” is underway, likely prompted by Israeli military chiefs’ realization that a ground offensive wouldn’t just be bloody, it wouldn’t rid Gaza of Hamas either. “When the PLO was forced out of Lebanon by Israel in 1982, it still was able to maintain a presence in the country and Yasser Arafat was back within a year in Lebanon,” he said.

Likewise, lawmaker Ashraf Rifi — a former director of Lebanon’s Internal Security Forces — told POLITICO he thinks Israeli generals are likely just as behind the apparent hold as their Western allies. “Military commanders are always less enthusiastic about going to war than politicians, and Israeli military commanders are always cautious,” he said.

“Let’s hope so, otherwise we will all be thrown into hell.”



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In War-Torn Ukraine, a Doctor Evacuates Children with Cancer

Roman Kizyma The first months of war, we didn’t have the weekdays, so we just worked seven days, 24 hours.

There are moments when I can work for three days without sleep. There are moments like when I, I cannot do anything for this day.

I had a very long period without my very small kids. And so when I met in a couple of months, my younger son, so he didn’t recognize me. So compared to the people that suffered the atrocities in Bucha or European or Eastern Ukraine, this is nothing. But this wasn’t a good experience. 

The main factor for myself is this feeling of responsibility.

[Roman Kizyma, to camera] So when you see a bald guy or girl in the hospital, that’s my patient. 

If I just stop, I compromise the treatment of hundreds of children. And I think I’m not in the position to to end this.

[Roman Kizyma, in Ukrainian to patient] Where is the problem? Where does it hurt? Show me. 

[Patient] Here. 

Roman Kizyma Here? Ok. 

[Roman Kizyma in Ukrainian, to patient] Do you want to show me your tongue? Ok.

My name is Roman Kizyma. I am pediatric oncologist, a medical doctor treating children with cancer. Now I’m the Acting Director of Western Ukrainian Specialized Children’s Medical Center, a huge, specialized hospital for severely ill children with cancer with other catastrophic diseases.

The war made the things for children with cancer and other catastrophic disease very difficult. You have to fight two wars, one against cancer, the other against the crazy Russian army shooting at you. It’s not only the physical unsafety, it’s also the complete disruption at some point of medical logistics. So no drugs coming to the hospital. No doctors or nurses available in the direct hospital. The physical unsafety, the shelling of Ukrainian electricity infrastructure.

So sometimes we were black. All the hospital was black. No electricity. 

[Hospital staff, in Ukrainain] And our doctor’s don’t know this but 

[Staff] — Oh everyone’s with flashlights. 

[Hospital Staff singing Ukrainian National Anthem] 

Roman Kizyma This is a vulnerable group of patients. And when there is a kind of crisis, vulnerable group of people suffers the most because no one cares. Everyone trying to save themselves. So that’s why a lot of families like asked or decided or went by themselves to Europe with this project that we call Safer Ukraine. 

Before the war, I was just treating cancer. I transformed into someone coordinating the big groups of very sick children going here and there. So it means like one and a half thousand children out of Ukraine with cancer treated somewhere else. The team is ready to help these children and we have the capacity. So that’s why this is a special hospital.

During two years before the start of the war, we were creating the new department, the Clinic of Pediatric oncology and stem cell transplant here in this hospital.We opened this seven days before the start of the war, so we had a huge amount of patients going to be treated there. And we have to transform ourselves from oncologists to emergency doctors and relocate all our patients to to to the other countries.

So it was a huge blow for our level of work. And we have to abandon all these new structures that we created because you cannot perform transplants when you are getting shellings and shootings and all these children.

[Roman Kizyma in Ukrainian] If not urgent then tomorrow, ok? Ok. If urgent I can look now. Ok. 

I feel so stressed. I feel like in a race against time. The relocation of a child with cancer from Ukraine to Western Europe is not something new. We did that even before the war, but was like a couple of children per year. But how do you do that if you have 100 children with cancer coming to your hospital per night.

These are severely ill children. And for each of them you should have a lot of medical staff to support each patient.

[Nurse, in Ukrainian] Alright. 

There is no hospital that can treat 1,500 children at one time from some country. So this is not possible, 

[Child, in Ukrainian] It’s cold.

Roman Kizyma That’s why we tried to use different criteria. First of all, we organized multistep approach with different hubs.

We got the requests from the families or the doctors from different cities of the east of Ukraine or Kyiv, the capital. The first hub is in Lviv. This hospital that can host any child of any severity. And if they cannot go further, we can treat them here for a long time or for a short time and then allocate them.

We created with our partners, with charities or the support for housing and the capacity for transportation. So we had a lot of volunteers meeting children in the railway station, carrying them out of there, carrying 20 patients out of a train in a railway station that is packed with people trying to go somewhere. We went only [as] five doctors to meet a huge convoy at the railway station, so we have to carry kids across the railways.

The next step was the hub in Poland. The thing was to cross the border was a lot of queues of people trying desperately to move out of Ukraine. So we used the diplomatic power of Polish consulates situated in Lviv. This was saving time for the severely ill kids because if they stayed for ten or 20 hours in the queue, they would not leave it. So it was possible. 

In the next hub there was a triage of the international team that came here to Poland and they formed a logistics. A huge hotel was transformed into a medical center in the middle of Poland. Children were arriving there and they were triaged to different rooms and taken care by this group of international doctors.

Then they contacted their dedicated hospital throughout Europe and U.SA and these hospitals and their government, they were transferring these kids to a specific hospital admitted by their team. In the worst phase, we had more than 150 children per week sent by this pathway. This was very hard. 

[Roman Kizyma in Ukrainian, to patient] You can pull it up a bit. Good. 

Roman Kizyma My job was not to step into one into one case.

So this was I was oncologist myself. So I tried just to not to step in each case more than like 10 minutes. So I used my previous experience to triage them. 

[Roman Kizyma in Ukrainian, to patient.] Good. Can you smile? Can you smile and show your teeth? Good, well done. 

During all these relocations, we lost two children. It’s Russians who were attacking them, kids were from Kharkiv.

So it’s very close to the Russian border. That’s why during their very severe treatment phase, they had to be evacuated from their hospital, put into ordinary trains and they came to L’viv. Like we literally had no choice. So we had to explain to the families, you decide what you do. You don’t go and we stay and try to do something here in L’viv during these air strikes, or you risk.

But at least, you know you did everything to a child. So they risked and we failed. So this both children died. Some of their doctors who helped us here, they came from the regions that were under attack. There is a sad story of our colleagues in Kyiv. One of their doctors, she was driving to her shift for the children with cancer.

She was hit directly by a Russian rocket in her car and she was burned alive. Her name is Oksana Leontieva. And I think this event, it was very influential. So we realized how dangerous, dangerous the work is. 

[In Ukrainian, singing] Hands made some porridge and gave to Darynka. Running to get some porridge, Yes. 

But there were a lot of happy situations. And I visited a lot of these hospitals afterwards, like in fall in the winter, that here. And the people were happy. The children were happy. Who are you treating? Sometimes I felt like I was going through a hospital in Europe and like the first room, my patient, the second room, my patient. The third room, my patient.

So I was feeling like I’m the part of the staff of that hospital. You were asking me like, What should we do with your patients? So mostly these are the good stories and the feedbacks where like people are very grateful to all these countries because they felt like they were in home. During last year even as a pediatric oncologist, I helped to build the facilities.

So I’ll try to do that as a director, but not only for pediatric oncology, for example, this will be the intensive care unit, the huge project within this year. So some people like outside of Ukraine, how can you build during the wartime? You can. Why not? The life still goes on and we have to have these places for this severely ill children that will look better.

So that’s what I am focused now to to do that. This is a network that try to balance itself. So this is a never ending process. I hope this will work.

[The above is a transcript of this podcast]

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Armenians find themselves pushed aside yet again

Jamie Dettmer is opinion editor at POLITICO Europe. 

Last week, U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres warned that the world is “inching ever closer to a great fracture in economic and financial systems and trade relations.”

That may be so, but not when it comes to Azerbaijan.

A country a third of the size of Britain and with a population of about 10 million, Azerbaijan has faced few problems in bridging geopolitical divisions. And recently, Baku has been offering a masterclass in how to exploit geography and geology to considerable advantage.

From Washington to Brussels, Moscow to Beijing, seemingly no one wants to fall out with Azerbaijan; everyone wants to be a friend. Even now, as Armenia has turned to the world for help, accusing Baku of attempted ethnic cleansing in disputed Nagorno-Karabakh — the land-locked and long-contested Armenian enclave in Azerbaijan.

Warning signs had been mounting in recent weeks that Baku might be planning a major offensive, which it dubbed an “anti-terrorist operation,” and Armenia had been sending up distress flares. But not only were these largely overlooked, Baku has since faced muted criticism for its assault as well.

Western reaction could change, though, if Azerbaijan were to now engage in mass ethnic cleansing — but Baku is canny enough to know that.

Since Russia invaded Ukraine, Azerbaijan has been courted by all sides, becoming one of the war’s beneficiaries.

On a visit to Baku last year, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen had only warm words for the country’s autocratic leader Ilham Aliyev, saying she saw him as a reliable and trustworthy energy partner for the European Union.

Then, just a few weeks later, Alexander Lukashenko — Russian President Vladimir Putin’s satrap in Belarus — had no hesitation in describing Aliyev as “absolutely our man.”

Is there any other national leader who can be a pal of von der Leyen and Lukashenko at the same time?

Aliyev is also a friend of Turkey; Baku and Beijing count each other as strategic partners, with Azerbaijan participating in China’s Belt and Road Initiative; and the country has been working on expanding military cooperation with Israel as well. In 2020 — during the last big flare-up in this intractable conflict — Israel had supplied Azerbaijan with drones, alongside Turkey.

That’s an impressive list of mutually exclusive friends and suitors — and location and energy explain much.

Upon her arrival in Azerbaijan’s capital last year, von der Leyen wasn’t shy about highlighting Europe’s need to “diversify away from Russia” for its energy needs, announcing a deal with Baku to increase supplies from the southern gas corridor — the 3,500-kilometer pipeline bringing gas from the Caspian Sea to Europe.

She also noted that Azerbaijan “has a tremendous potential in renewable energy” in offshore wind and green hydrogen, enthusing that “gradually, Azerbaijan will evolve from being a fossil fuel supplier to becoming a very reliable and prominent renewable energy partner to the European Union.”

There was no mention of Azerbaijan’s poor human rights record, rampant corruption or any call for the scores of political prisoners to be released.

Azerbaijan uses oil and gas “to silence the EU on fundamental rights issues,” Philippe Dam of Human Rights Watch complained at the time. “The EU should not say a country is reliable when it is restricting the activities of civil society groups and crushing political dissent,” he added.

Eve Geddie, director of Amnesty International’s Brussels office, warned: “Ukraine serves as a reminder that repressive and unaccountable regimes are rarely reliable partners and that privileging short-term objectives at the expense of human rights is a recipe for disaster.”

But von der Leyen isn’t the first top EU official to speak of Azerbaijan as such a partner. In 2019, then EU Council President Donald Tusk also praised Azerbaijan for its reliability.

Since Russia invaded Ukraine, however, the EU’s courting has become even more determined — and, of course, the bloc isn’t alone. Rich in oil and gas and located between Russia, Iran, Armenia, Georgia and the Caspian Sea, Azerbaijan is a strategic prize, sitting “on the crossroads of former major empires, civilizations and regional and global powerhouses,” according to Fariz Ismailzade of ADA University in Baku.

And Azerbaijan’s growing importance in the latest great game in Central Asia is reflected in the increase in foreign diplomatic missions located in its capital — in 2005 there were just two dozen, now there are 85.

For Ankara, and Beijing — eager to expand their influence across Central Asia — Azerbaijan is a key player in regional energy projects, as well as the development of new regional railways and planned infrastructure and connectivity projects.

Thanks to strong linguistic, religious and cultural ties, Turkey has been Azerbaijan’s main regional ally since it gained independence. But Baku has been adept at making sure it keeps in with all its suitors. It realizes they all offer opportunities but could also be dangerous, should relations take a dive.

And this holds for all the key players in the region, whether it be the EU, Turkey, China or Russia. The reason Baku can get on with a highly diverse set of nations — and why there likely won’t be many serious repercussions for Baku with this latest military foray — is that no one wants to give geopolitical rivals an edge and upset the fragile equilibrium in Central Asia. That includes its traditional foe Iran – Baku and Tehran have in recent months been trying to build a détente after years of hostility.

For the Armenians, so often finding themselves wronged by history, this is highly unfortunate. They might have been better advised to follow Azerbaijan’s example and try to be everyone’s friend, instead of initially depending on Russia, then pivoting West — a pirouette that’s lost them any sympathy in Moscow.

But then again, Armenia hasn’t been blessed with proven reserves of oil or natural gas like its neighbor.



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Moldova ramps up EU membership push amid fears of Russia-backed coup

CHIȘINĂU, Moldova — Tens of thousands of Moldovans descended on the central square of the capital on Sunday, waving flags and homemade placards in support of the country’s push to join the EU and make a historic break with Moscow.

With Russia’s war raging just across the border in Ukraine, the government of this tiny Eastern European nation called the rally in an effort to overcome internal divisions and put pressure on Brussels to begin accession talks, almost a year after Moldova was granted EU candidate status.

“Joining the EU is the best way to protect our democracy and our institutions,” Moldova’s President Maia Sandu told POLITICO at Chișinău’s presidential palace, as a column of her supporters marched past outside. “I call on the EU to take a decision on beginning accession negotiations by the end of the year. We think we have enough support to move forward.”

Speaking alongside Sandu at what was billed as a “national assembly,” European Parliament President Roberta Metsola declared that “Europe is Moldova. Moldova is Europe!” The crowd, many holding Ukrainian flags and the gold-and-blue starred banner of the EU, let out a cheer. An orchestra on stage played the bloc’s anthem, Ode to Joy.

“In recent years, you have taken decisive steps and now you have the responsibility to see it through, even with this war on your border,” Metsola said. “The Republic of Moldova is ready for integration into the single European market.”

However, the jubilant rally comes amid warnings that Moscow is doing everything it can to keep the former Soviet republic within its self-declared sphere of influence.

In February, the president of neighboring Ukraine, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, warned that his country’s security forces had disrupted a plot to overthrow Moldova’s pro-Western government. Officials in Chișinău later said the Russian-backed effort could have involved sabotage, attacks on government buildings and hostage-taking. Moscow officially denies the claims.

“Despite previous efforts to stay neutral, Moldova is finding itself in the Kremlin’s crosshairs — whether they want to be or not, they’re party of this broader conflict in Ukraine,” said Arnold Dupuy, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council think tank in Washington.

“There’s an effort by the Kremlin to turn the country into a ‘southern Kaliningrad,’ putting in place a friendly regime that allows them to attack the Ukrainians’ flanks,” Dupuy said. “But this hasn’t been as effective as the Kremlin hoped and they’ve actually strengthened the government’s hand to look to the EU and NATO for protection.”

Responding to the alleged coup attempt, Brussels last month announced it would deploy a civilian mission to Moldova to combat growing threats from Russia. According to Josep Borrell, the EU’s top diplomat, the deployment under the terms of the Common Security and Defense Policy, will provide “support to Moldova [to] protect its security, territorial integrity and sovereignty.”

Bumps on the road to Brussels

Last week, Sandu again called on Brussels to begin accession talks “as soon as possible” in order to protect Moldova from what she said were growing threats from Russia. “Nothing compares to what is happening in Ukraine, but we see the risks and we do believe that we can save our democracy only as part of the EU,” she said. A group of influential MEPs from across all of the main parties in the European Parliament have tabled a motion calling for the European Commission to start the negotiations by the end of the year.

But, after decades as one of Russia’s closest allies, Moldova knows its path to EU membership isn’t without obstacles.

“The challenge is huge,” said Tom de Waal, a senior fellow at Carnegie Europe. “They will need to overcome this oligarchic culture that has operated for 30 years where everything is informal, institutions are very weak and large parts of the bureaucracy are made viable by vested interests.”

At the same time, a frozen conflict over the breakaway region of Transnistria, in the east of Moldova, could complicate matters still further. The stretch of land along the border with Ukraine, home to almost half a million people, has been governed since the fall of the Soviet Union by pro-Moscow separatists, and around 1,500 Russian troops are stationed there despite Chișinău demanding they leave. It’s also home to one of the Continent’s largest weapons stockpiles, with a reported 20,000 tons of Soviet-era ammunition.

“Moldova cannot become a member of the EU with Russian troops on its territory against the will of the Republic of Moldova itself, so we will need to solve this before membership,” Romanian MEP Siegfried Mureșan, chair of the European Parliament’s delegation to the country, told POLITICO.

“We do not know now what a solution could look like, but the fact that we do not have an answer to this very specific element should not prevent us from advancing Moldova’s European integration in all other areas where we can,” Mureșan said.

While she denied that Brussels had sent any official signals that Moldova’s accession would depend on Russian troops leaving the country, Sandu said that “we do believe that in the next months and years there may be a geopolitical opportunity to resolve this conflict.”

Ties that bind

Even outside of Transnistria, Moscow maintains significant influence in Moldova. While Romanian is the country’s official language, Russian is widely used in daily life while the Kremlin’s state media helps shape public opinion — and in recent months has turned up the dial on its attacks on Sandu’s government.

A study by Chișinău-based pollster CBS Research in February found that while almost 54 percent of Moldovans say they would vote in favor of EU membership, close to a quarter say they would prefer closer alignment with Russia. Meanwhile, citizens were split on who to blame for the war in Ukraine, with 25 percent naming Russian President Vladimir Putin and 18 percent saying the U.S.

“Putin is not a fool,” said one elderly man who declined to give his name, shouting at passersby on the streets of the capital. “I hate Ukrainians.”

Outside of the capital, the pro-Russian ȘOR Party has held counter-protests in several regional cities.

Almost entirely dependent on Moscow for its energy needs, Moldova has seen Russia send the cost of gas skyrocketing in what many see as an attempt at blackmail. Along with an influx of Ukrainian refugees, the World Bank reported that Moldova’s GDP “contracted by 5.9 percent and inflation reached an average of 28.7 percent in 2022.”

“We will buy energy sources from democratic countries, and we will not support Russian aggression in exchange for cheap gas,” Sandu told POLITICO.

The Moldovan president, a former World Bank economist who was elected in 2020 on a wave of anti-corruption sentiment, faces a potentially contentious election battle next year. With the process of EU membership set to take years, or even decades, it remains to be seen whether the country will stay the course in the face of pressure from the Kremlin.

For Aurelia, a 40-year-old Moldovan who tied blue and yellow ribbons into her hair for Sunday’s rally, the choice is obvious. “We’ve been a part of the Russian world my whole life. Now we want to live well, and we want to live free.”



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Chairman FAO: Western powers pressure China’s UN food boss to grip global hunger crisis

ROME, Italy — The Chinese head of a crucial U.N. food agency has come under intense scrutiny by Western powers, who accuse him of failing to grip a global hunger crisis exacerbated by Russia’s war in Ukraine.

Qu Dongyu, director general of the Food and Agriculture Organization, has alienated the Western powers that are the agency’s main backers with his technocratic leadership style and connections to Beijing that, in their view, have damaged its credibility and capability to mitigate the crisis.

POLITICO has interviewed more than a dozen U.N. officials and diplomats for this article. The critical picture that emerges is of a leader whose top-down management style and policy priorities are furthering China’s own agenda, while sidelining the U.N.’s Sustainable Development Goals.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February was met with weeks of eerie silence at the FAO, and although the messaging has since changed, Qu’s critics say FAO should be showing stronger political leadership on the food crisis, which threatens to tip millions more people into hunger.

“Nobody actually takes him seriously: It’s not him; it’s China,” said one former U.N. official. “I’m not convinced he would make a single decision without first checking it with the capital.”

In his defense, Qu and his team say a U.N. body should not be politicized and that he’s delivering on the FAO’s analytical and scientific mandate.

Chairman FAO

Qu Dongyu was elected in 2019 to run the Rome-based agency, handing China a chance to build international credibility in the U.N. system, and punishing a division between the EU and the U.S after they backed competing candidates who lost badly. The election was clouded by allegations of coercion and bribery against China.

Now, as he prepares for a likely reelection bid next year to run FAO until 2027, Qu — who describes himself as a conflict-averse “humble, small farmers’ son” — is under intensifying scrutiny over his leadership during the crisis.

After three years of largely avoiding the headlines, Qu drew criticism from countries like France and the U.S. for his sluggish and mealy-mouthed response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, a massive exporter of food to developing countries.

The EU and U.S. forced an emergency meeting of the FAO’s Council in the spring in order to pressure the FAO leadership into stepping up to the plate, with Ukraine demanding he rethink his language of calling it a “conflict” and not a war. The communications division was initially ordered to keep schtum about the war and its likely impacts on food supply chains. In May, Ukrainians protested outside FAO HQ in Rome demanding Russia be kicked out of the organization.

At a meeting of the FAO Council in early December, countries like France, Germany and the U.S. successfully pushed through yet another demand for urgent action from FAO’s leadership, requesting fresh analysis of impact of Russia’s war on global hunger, and a full assessment of the damage done to Ukraine’s vast farm system.

China has not condemned Russia outright for invading Ukraine, while the EU and the U.S. use every opportunity in the international arena to slam Moscow for its war of aggression: Those geopolitical tensions are playing out across the FAO’s 194 member countries. Officials at the agency, which has $3.25 billion to spend across 2022 and 2023, are expected to act for the global good — and not in the narrow interest of their countries.

Qu is said still to be furious about the confrontation: “[He] is still upset about that, that really annoyed him,” said one ambassador to the FAO. “He sees the EU as an entity, a player within the FAO that is obstructing his vision.”

Qu featured on a TV screen inside the FAO headquarters in Rome | Eddy Wax/POLITICO

Though Qu has now adapted his language and talks about the suffering being caused by Russia’s war, some Western countries still believe FAO should respond proactively to the food crisis, in particular to the agricultural fallout from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The FAO’s regular budget and voluntary funds are largely provided by EU countries, the U.S. and allies like Japan, the U.K. and Canada. The U.S. contributes 22 percent of the regular budget, compared to China’s 12 percent.

Qu is determined to stick to the mandate of the FAO to simply provide analysis to its members — and to steer clear of geopolitics.

“I’m not [a] political figure; I’m FAO DG,” he told POLITICO in October, in an encounter in an elevator descending from FAO’s rooftop canteen in Rome.

FAO’s technocratic stance is defended by other members of Qu’s top team, such as Chief Economist Máximo Torero, who told POLITICO in May: “You are in a war. Some people think that we need to take political positions. We are not a political entity that is the Security Council — that’s not our job.”

Apparatchik

Qu can hardly be said to be apolitical, as he is a former vice-minister of agriculture and rural affairs of the Chinese Communist Party.

On top of his political background he has expertise in agriculture. He was part of a team of scientists that sequenced the potato genome while he was doing a PhD at Wageningen University in the Netherlands. In an email to POLITICO his professor, Evert Jacobsen, remembered Qu’s “enthusiasm about his country,” as well as is “strategic thinking” and “open character.”

Yet Western diplomats worry that many of the policy initiatives he has pushed through during his tenure map onto China’s foreign policy goals.

They say that the U.N. Sustainable Development Goals have been eclipsed by his own initiatives, such as his mantra of the Four Betters (production, nutrition, environment, life), and Chinese-sounding plans from “One Country, One Priority Product” to his flagship Hand-in-Hand Initiative.

Some Western diplomats say these bear the hallmarks of China’s Global Development Initiative, about which Qu has tweeted favorably.

Detractors say these are at best empty slogans, and at worst serve China’s foreign policy agenda. “If the countries that are on the receiving end don’t exercise agency you need to be aware that these are policies that first and foremost are thought to advance China, either materially or in terms of international reputation, or in terms of diplomacy,” said Francesca Ghiretti, an analyst at the Mercator Institute for China Studies (MERICS).

Insiders say he’s put pressure on parts of the FAO ecosystem that promote civil society engagement or market transparency: two features that don’t go down well in Communist China. The former U.N. official said Qu had subjected the G20 market transparency dashboard AMIS, housed at FAO, to “increased pressure and control,” causing international organizations to step in to protect its independence earlier this year.

The diplomat said Qu was trying to suffocate the Committee on World Food Security, which invites civil society and indigenous people’s groups into FAO’s HQ and puts them on a near-equal footing with countries. “What has he accomplished in two-plus years? You can get Chinese noodles in the cafeteria,” they said.

Flags at the entrance to the FAO headquarters in Rome | Eddy Wax/POLITICO

But at a U.N. agency that has historically been deeply dysfunctional, Qu is popular among staff members.

“Mr. Qu Dongyu brought a new spirit on how to treat staff and established trust and peace between staff and management,” said one former FAO official.

Even his sharpest critics concede that he has done good things during his tenure. He made a point of shaking every staff member’s hand upon his election, even turning up occasionally unannounced to lunch with them in the canteen that he’s recently had refurbished. There’s also widespread appreciation among agriculture policymakers of the high quality of economic work turned out by FAO, and support for his climate change and scientific agenda.

“The quality of data FAO produces is very good and it’s producing good policy recommendations,” one Western diplomat acknowledged.

FAO play

Three years into his term, there’s a much stronger Chinese presence at FAO and Chinese officials occupy some of the key divisions, covering areas such as plants & pesticides, land & water, a research center for nuclear science and technology in agriculture, and a division on cooperation between developing countries. A vacant spot atop the forestry division is also expected to go to a Chinese candidate.

Experts say those positions are part of a strategy. “China tries to get the divisions where it can grow its footprint in terms of shaping the rules, shaping the action and engaging more broadly with the Global South,” said Ghiretti, the MERICS analyst.

The EU Commission is closely monitoring trends in staff appointments and data collection. “He’s hired a lot of young Chinese people who will fill [the] ranks later,” said an EU diplomat.

Mandarin is heard more than before in the corridors of the Rome HQ, a labyrinthine complex built in the 1930s by Fascist dictator Benito Mussolini to house its ministry of overseas colonies.

Western diplomats and staffers past and present describe Qu as a poor communicator, who displays little care about engaging with or being accountable to countries and who tends to leave meetings after delivering perfunctory remarks, all of which leaves space for rumor and suspicion to grow.

Even those who acknowledge that Qu has made modest achievements at the helm of FAO still see his leadership style as typical of a Chinese official being kept on a tight leash by Beijing. The EU and U.S. criticized Qu’s move to push back an internal management review that was meant to be conducted by independent U.N. inspectors, and will now likely not emerge until after the next election.

And although FAO is still receiving bucketloads of Western funding, its fundraising drive specifically for rural families and farmers in war-torn Ukraine is still $100 million short of its $180 million target, a pittance in an international context — especially amid deafening warnings of a global food supply crisis next year. 

That’s partly because the U.S. and EU prefer to work bilaterally with Kyiv rather than going through FAO. “This is the time for FAO to be fully funded,” said Pierre Vauthier, a French agronomist who runs the FAO operation in Ukraine. “We need additional money.”

A plaque outside Qu’s fourth floor office at the FAO headquarters in Rome | Eddy Wax/POLITICO

There’s no love lost on Qu’s side, either. In June, he went on a unscripted rant accusing unnamed countries of being obsessed with money, apparently in light of criticism of his flagship Hand-in-Hand Initiative.

“You are looking at money, I’m looking to change the business model because I’m a farmer of small poor, family. You from the rich countries, you consider the money first, I consider wisdom first. It’s a different mentality,” Qu said, before complaining about his own salary being cut.

Asked repeatedly, Qu did not confirm to POLITICO whether he would stand for a second four-year term, but traditionally FAO chiefs serve at least twice and he is widely expected to run. Nominations officially opened December 1. The question is whether the U.S., EU or a developing nation will bother trying to run against him, when his victory looks all but inevitable.

There’s competition for resources between the World Food Programme (WFP), a bastion of U.S. development power, and FAO. A Spaniard, Alvaro Lario, was recently appointed to run the third Rome-based U.N. food agency, the International Fund for Agricultural Development, while WFP’s chief David Beasley is expected to be replaced by another American next year.

In any case, the countries that Qu will likely count on to be re-elected are not so interested in the political machinations of the West or its condemnation of the Russia’s war in Ukraine, which it seeks to impress upon FAO’s top leadership.

“Our relations with the FAO are on a technical basis and not concerned by the political positions of the FAO. What interests us is that the FAO supports us to modernize our agriculture,” said Cameroon’s Agriculture Minister Gabriel Mbairobe.

Other African countries defend FAO’s recent track record: “They’ve been very, very active, let’s be honest,” said Yaya A.O. Olaniran, Nigeria’s ambassador to the FAO. “It’s easy to criticize.”

This story has been updated.



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