Ilya Gambashidze: Simple soldier of disinformation or king of Russia’s trolls?

He may not be a household name, but Ilya Gambashidze appears to be involved in almost all of the latest Russian disinformation operations across the world. His disruptive cyber actions earned him a spot last year on the European sanctions list. But a FRANCE 24-RFI profile of Russia’s mystery man of manipulation reveals an operative with a far smaller disinformation stature than the Kremlin’s previous troll czar, the late Wagner boss, Yevgeny Prigozhin.

He emerged from anonymity in the West in the summer of 2023. Ilya Gambashidze’s name first appeared on the July 2023 Council of the European Union’s list of Russian nationals subjected to sanctions.

The list – which transliterated his last name from the original Cyrillic text as “Gambachidze” – noted that he was the “founder of Structura National Technologies and Social Design Agency” and was a “key actor” in Russia’s disinformation campaign targeting Ukraine and a number of West European countries.

By November, the US State Department was citing Gambashidze in a media note on the Kremlin’s efforts to covertly spread disinformation in Latin America.

The tactics cited in the US and EU documents detail the disinformation strategies employed in a vast operation dubbed Doppelganger by EU officials, which clones and creates fake websites impersonating government organisations and mainstream media.

The Social Design Agency (SDA) and Structura were described by the US State Department as “influence-for-hire firms” with “deep technical capability, experience in exploiting open information environments, and a history of proliferating disinformation and propaganda to further Russia’s foreign influence objectives”.  

The SDA fulfills a dual role, according to Coline Chavane, threat research analyst at, a French cybersecurity company. “The SDA acted both as a coordinator of the various players involved in these disinformation campaigns, and as an operator, creating false content,” she explained.

Exploiting crises from Ukraine to Gaza war

In addition to being a prolific disinformer, Gambashidze is also an opportunistic one. Months after his name appeared on the European sanctions list, Gambashidze was busy trying to fan tensions between France’s Muslim and Jewish communities following the Gaza war launched by Israel in response to the October 7 Hamas attack.

The French foreign ministry has linked an anti-Semitic Star of David graffiti campaign in the Paris region to Operation Doppelganger. Viginum, the French government agency for defence against foreign digital influence, has accused the SDA of seeking to amplify the surge in anti-Semitism in France by using bots to proliferate Star of David posts on social networks.

The Kremlin has even cited Gambashidze as the chief organiser of a new anti-Western propaganda campaign in Ukraine, according to documents detailing a disinformation plan signed by the SDA boss and leaked to Ukrainian media.

In the leaked documents, Gambashidze is presented as one of the main shadow advisors to “The Other Ukraine”, a massive Kremlin propaganda operation targeting Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky.

“One reason for talking about Gambashidze is he looks very central. His name keeps cropping up including with respect to Ukraine,” said Andrew Wilson, a professor of Ukrainian studies at University College London.

When contacted by FRANCE 24, the Council of the European Union declined to comment on the importance that Brussels attaches to this Russian propagandist, citing the “confidentiality of preparatory work” in deciding whether to sanction an individual or a company.

Gambashidze is not the only Russian involved in Operation Doppelganger cited by the EU. Individuals linked to the GRU, Russia’s military intelligence unit, have also been sanctioned.

Nor is he the sole orchestrator of the new disinformation campaign in Ukraine. He is also said to have worked with Sofiya Zakharova, an employee of the Russian Department of Communications and Information Technology, dubbed “the brain” of Operation Doppelganger.

In the footsteps of Yevgeny Prigozhin

With the SDA and Structura cropping up in multiple Western investigations and news reports on Russian disinformation, Anton Shekhovtsov, a Ukrainian political scientist and director of the Austrian-based Centre for Democratic Integrity, notes that his omnipresence suggests that “Ilya Gambashidze and the SDA are gradually replacing Yevgeny Prigozhin and his troll factory”.

Before the Wagner militia chief’s death in August 2023, Prigozhin ran a network of “troll farms” that conducted disinformation operations covering vast ground, from the 2016 US presidential elections and the Brexit vote to online anti-West campaigns in Africa and Asia.

Prigozhin’s death in a plane crash just two months after he led a failed mutiny in Russia has left the disinformation throne vacant, according to Shekhovtsov. “There’s a place up for grabs and the competition is fierce. For now, Ilya Gambashidze appears to be well placed,” he noted.

But Gambashidze has not yet reached Prigozhin’s disinformation stature, and his vast domain could be divided between several inheritors. “We are currently witnessing a restructuring of the propaganda ecosystem in Russia. There isn’t necessarily one player at the heart of the system. It’s more like a network that’s being set up,” said Chavane.

In the past, when Prigozhin was the tutelary figure of the Kremlin’s cyber propaganda, “disinformation was organised in a pyramid structure, whereas we seem to be moving more towards a spider’s web structure with several players linked together in a network”, explained François Deruty, Sekoia’s chief operations officer.

A discreet Rasputin of disinformation

Gambashidze and Prigozhin have a difference in style as well as stature. The middle-aged Gambashidze, with his rather stern Russian technocrat demeanor, has none of the bluster and media showmanship of the late Wagner boss. While Prigozhin was known for his public boasts and rants, Gambashidze’s modus operandi appears to be discretion.

Very little is known about his private life, and the Internet provides little information about him – not even basic details such as his age. According to Russian investigative journalist Sergei Yezhov, Gambashidze is 46 years old.

There are no details about his birthplace, education and family life either. The only available piece of information is that he comes under the fiscal jurisdiction of a Moscow tax office. Photographs of Gambashidze are equally rare, and one of the most recent shows an austere-looking man with thinning hair and no other distinguishing features.

On the European list of sanctioned individuals, he is described as having “formerly worked as a counsellor … to Piotr Tolstoi”. It’s a noteworthy detail. Piotr Tolstoi, commonly spelt Pyotr Tolstoy, is none other than the great-grandson of Russian literary icon Leo Tolstoy. The younger Tolstoy is the deputy chairman of the Duma, Russia’s lower house of parliament. He was also deputy chairman of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe before Russia was expelled from the organisation – which is distinct from the EU – following the 2022 Ukraine invasion.

The lack of information, discretion and cited ties to prominent Russian politicians paints a picture of a mysterious master of manipulation, a latter-day Rasputin of disinformation.

‘Third-rate political technologist’

But images can also be deceptive. “If there’s so little information about him, it may be simply because he’s not important enough in Russia,” noted Andrey Pertsev, a journalist with the Latvia-based independent Russian website, Meduza, and an expert on Moscow’s corridors of power.

Gambashidze’s case illustrates how the same individual can be perceived by two very different worlds. In the West, he is considered a threat, with Europe going so far as to include him on its list of sanctioned individuals. In Russia, on the other hand, he is at best “a third-rate political technologist”, according to Pertsev, using a Russian term for the professional engineering of politics.

While the term “political technology” is largely unfamiliar in the West, it’s well known to Russian and Ukrainian audiences acquainted with the state’s manipulation of techniques to hijack and weaponise the political process.

It’s also the subject of Wilson’s latest book, “Political Technology: The Globalisation of Political Manipulation”, and Gambashidze appears to neatly fit the definition of a political technologist. “His career looks super typical. A lot of these political technologists are entrepreneurial. They sell services, they come up with ideas,” explained Wilson.

Internationally, political technologists are most often associated with Prigozhin, who sent dozens of them to African countries to help Moscow’s protégés win elections. But most Russian political technologists are focused on domestic politics and local parties, according to experts. “We mustn’t forget that their main bread and butter consists of handling local elections, working for governors or parties,” noted Shekhovtsov.

“That’s where the money is,” explained Pertsev. A political technologist’s influence is therefore measured above all by the prestige of the election he or she is supposed to help win.

Gambashidze is no exception. He has handled elections in Kalmykia, one of Russia’s 21 republics, located in the North Caucasus, as well as in the Tambov Oblast, one of the least populated regions of central Russia.

“His [SDA] team often made mistakes and he was repeatedly called back to Moscow to avoid an electoral setback,” explained Pertsev, who says he cannot understand how such an individual ended up in Brussels’ crosshairs.

On the messaging service Telegram, anonymous accounts make fun of the questionable effects of Gambashidze’s advice to Batu Khassikov, governor of Kalmykia in 2019. Not only did Gambashidze fail to get Khassikov re-elected, but the incumbent’s popularity rating actually plummeted at the time.

A pig release backfires

In August 2023, a Gambashidze associate thought it wise to organise a release of pigs tattooed with the Communist Party emblem in Khakassia, a republic in southern Siberia.

The aim of the pig release was to discredit the republic’s Communist governor, Valentin Konovalov. But the plan backfired: Gambashidze’s associate was accused by a section of the local population of “ridiculing Russian history” and he was fined for violating campaign rules.

But the SDA’s most prestigious, if short-lived, client appears to have been Leonid Slutsky, who took over as head of the ultranationalist Liberal Democratic Party (LDPR) in 2022 after the death of Russia’s notorious, far-right populist, Vladimir Zhirinovsky.

The new LDPR boss, aware of his lack of charisma, needed a political technologist. He ended up with Gambashidze. But he was quickly dismissed “without a moment’s hesitation, which means that Ilya Gambashidze is not considered very important in the Kremlin”, explained Pertsev.

How did such an individual come to be associated with large-scale disinformation operations on the international stage? “Sometimes it’s not competence that counts, but loyalty, and in Russia the quality of the network is central for a political technologist,” noted Wilson.

In Gambashidze’s case, the man who knows the man who knows President Vladimir Putin is Alexander Kharichev, a Kremlin adviser. But most important, according to Pertsev, is the fact that Gambashidze is “a fellow traveler” of Sergey Kiriyenko, a former Russian prime minister and currently the first deputy chief of staff in Putin’s administration.

In late December 2023, the Washington Post identified Kiriyenko as the top Russian official who tasked Kremlin political strategists with promoting political discord in France by amplifying messages to strengthen the French far-right. These included such talking points as the Ukraine war was plunging France into its deepest economic crisis ever or that it was depleting France of the weapons needed to defend itself.

“People come to Sergey Kiriyenko for electoral or other questions, and he delegates to Alexandre Kharitchev the task of finding the right political technologists,” explained Pertsev.

Cannon fodder in the information war

This is how Gambashidze came to be involved in international disinformation operations, explained Pertsev. “The main reason is that he’s cheap,” he explained, noting that in the Kremlin’s order of budgetary priorities, getting the right candidate to win local elections is more important than launching a disinformation campaign in Western Europe.

What’s more, “the best political scientists would probably not be interested”, added Pertsev.  For the big fish, working on disinformation campaigns targeting the West is not worth the risk since the domestic political market is more lucrative and they don’t risk ending up on international sanctions lists. In a way, Gambashidze is simply informational cannon fodder.

Yet the Kremlin’s great ideological war against the West – in which disinformation operations play an important role – has always been presented as a priority for Putin. It may seem incongruous to make a relatively minor figure like Gambashidze a central part of the disinformation schemes targeting the West.

But Gambashidze is not the only master on board. “As the defence of Russian values has been elevated to a matter of national security, Russian spies are inevitably involved in this type of operation,” noted Yevgeniy Golovchenko, a specialist in Russian disinformation at the University of Copenhagen.

Nor does the Kremlin require elaborate cyber-propaganda campaigns. “The most sophisticated aspect is the diversity of media and means used. For Operation Doppelganger, the SDA called on local media, journalists and YouTubers to amplify their messages. They also set up a vast network of fake sites, some of which were only visible in a specific country,” explained Chavane.

The fake news sites set up were rather crude clones of major news sites such as the French “20 minutes”, Germany’s “Der Spiegel” or British daily, “The Guardian”.

“The important thing is that these operations are inexpensive. One costs less than a missile over Ukraine. So even if they’re not perfectly executed by Ilya Gambashidze, the bet is that by stringing them together over a long period, they’ll end up working,” explained Golovchenko.

In Moscow’s informational warfare set-up, Gambashidze is a key cog in the wheel, in an approach reminiscent of Russia’s military strategy in Ukraine: sending in wave after wave of troops, in the hope that the enemy’s defences will collapse under the sheer numbers.

(This is a translation of the original in French.)

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The Kremlin puts Baltic leaders on ‘wanted’ list for challenging its worldview

The Kremlin placed Estonian Prime Minister Kaja Kallas and other Baltic officials on a list of wanted criminals on Monday in a move aimed at preserving Russia’s view of its glorious past from present-day challenges. The Kremlin said Kallas was put on the list for her efforts to remove WWII-era monuments to Soviet soldiers, moves seen by Moscow as unlawful and “an insult to history”.

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Russia has a track record of putting foreign officials on wanted lists, but this latest move makes Estonian Prime Minister Kaja Kallas the first foreign head of government to be sought by Russian police. Estonian Secretary of State Taimar Peterkop and Lithuanian Culture Minister Simonas Kairys are also on the list, along with dozens of other Baltic and Polish politicians.

Kallas and Peterkop made the list because of their efforts to remove monuments to Soviet soldiers who served in World War II, Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova confirmed. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov was blunt, saying the move was a response to those who have taken “hostile action toward historic memory and our country”.

A Russian security source told the TASS state news agency that the Kremlin is seeking to prosecute Kallas and Peterkop for the “destruction and defacement of monuments [honouring] Soviet soldiers” along with the Lithuanian minister of culture, Simonas Kairys.

“These wanted notices are Russia’s way of saying: ‘You come under Russian legislation and we consider you still, more or less, part of the Russian Empire,’” says historian Cécile Vaissié, professor of Russian and Soviet studies at Rennes-ll University.

“It’s simply provocation and an insult to an independent, autonomous country.”

Moscow has issued such wanted notices in the past, for instance, against exiled writer Boris Akunin over his condemnation of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Akunin was accused of “terrorism” and placed on the Kremlin’s list of “foreign agents”.

The Kremlin’s list is long indeed.

Meta spokesman and Ukrainian farmer on the list

More than 96,000 people – including over 31,000 Russians and nearly 4,000 Ukrainians – are on a Russian wanted list, according to the independent Russian news outlet Mediazona, which published a compilation of various Russian interior ministry databases on Monday.

The range of people targeted is wide. The list includes Andy Stone, spokesman for Meta (parent company of Facebook, WhatsApp and Instagram), accused of “supporting terrorism”. The Polish president of the International Criminal Court (ICC), Piotr Hofmanski, is also on the list. His name was added after the ICC issued an arrest warrant for Vladimir Putin in March 2023 for the Russian president’s role in the deportation of Ukrainian children.

Given the war in Ukraine, it’s no surprise that the majority of foreigners targeted by Russian law enforcement agencies are Ukrainians. Mediazona has identified at least 176 people “prosecuted in absentia” for various reasons: participation in the war, links with Ukrainian authorities, public statements. The list includes the former commander-in-chief of the Ukrainian army, Valery Zaluzhny, and even a Ukrainian farmer who supported Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky and made unflattering remarks about Putin.

Some 59 Latvian MPs – two-thirds of the parliament – are also under investigation after voting in May 2022 to withdraw from an agreement with Russia on the preservation of Soviet memorials. The parliamentary vote, taken a few months after the start of the war in Ukraine, was followed by the demolition of a Soviet-era monument in the capital, Riga.

“All these wanted notices give the impression of a catch-all approach, a hodge-podge of people supposedly hostile to Russia and against whom it is taking action,” notes Marie Dumoulin, programme director at the European Council for International Relations think tank.

Only one version of history

For Dumoulin, there is “no doubt that Russian prosecutors can support their contentions for each of these people”. But she has reservations about Kaja Kallas: “The case of the Estonian prime minister seems to me to be legally a little shaky: to single out foreign public figures on the basis of their discourse on history, that’s quite a reach.”

The prime minister, a fierce critic of Russia who has supported the removal of Soviet monuments in recent years, doesn’t seem to be fazed by her new status in Russia, dismissing the move as a “familiar scare tactic” by Moscow.

Posting on X, formerly Twitter, she said: “The Kremlin now hopes this move will help to silence me and others – but it won’t. The opposite.”

The threats of prosecution are largely symbolic, since they have little chance of leading to an arrest. But they are representative of Moscow’s continuing battle with the former Soviet countries of Eastern Europe over the historical narrative.

Above all, Vaissié explains, Moscow “aims to reaffirm the existence of a ‘Russian world’ (a concept born after the collapse of the Soviet Union to encompass the entire Russian-speaking diaspora outside Russia) and of a Russia at the centre of an empire and overseeing the lives of its citizens”.

“Since the 1990s, the Kremlin has maintained a deliberate confusion between Russian speakers, Russians, Russian citizens, former citizens of the USSR and former citizens of the Empire,” she said.

Dumoulin cited Moscow’s “long-standing hard line with the Baltic States on the question of memory”, adding that tensions ratcheted up a notch after the 2020 reform of Russia’s constitution.

“The historical memory of the Russian state was then enshrined in the constitution,” she said. “And from that moment on, there was a stiffening of internal attitudes, notably with the dissolution of the NGO Memorial (which, among other things, was the guardian of the memory of the Gulag).”

“It’s an approach in which there is only one possible historical discourse,” she said. “It’s not good to be a historian in Russia today.”

This article is a translation of the original in French.

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Russia launches 122 missiles in one of biggest attacks on Ukraine since start of war

Russia launched 122 missiles and 36 drones against Ukrainian targets, officials said Friday, killing at least 18 civilians across the country in what an air force official said was the biggest aerial barrage of the 22-month war.

AFP reporters in Kyiv heard several powerful explosions in the early hours of Friday and saw thick black smoke billowing from a warehouse.

“We haven’t seen so much red on our monitors for a long time,” said Yuriy Ignat, a spokesman for Ukraine‘s air force, explaining that Russian forces had first launched a wave of suicide drones followed by missiles.

The Ukrainian air force intercepted 87 of the missiles and 27 of the Shahed-type drones overnight, Ukraine’s military chief Valery Zaluzhnyi said.

Air Force commander Mykola Oleshchuk wrote on his official Telegram channel: “The most massive aerial attack” since Russia’s full-scale invasion in February 2022.

According to the Ukrainian air force, the previous biggest assault was in November 2022 when Russia launched 96 missiles against Ukraine. This year, the biggest was 81 missiles on March 9, air force records show.

“There are people killed by Russian missiles today that were launched at civilian facilities, civilian buildings,” presidential aide Andriy Yermak said.

“We are doing everything to strengthen our air shield. But the world needs to see that we need more support and strength to stop this terror,” he said on Telegram.

Two people were confirmed dead in the capital Kyiv, with more people thought to be trapped under rubble at a warehouse damaged by falling debris, Mayor Vitali Klitschko said on Telegram messenger.

He also said the capital’s air defences were working intensively.

A metro station whose platforms were being used as an air raid shelter was damaged, he said.

Sergiy Popko, head of Kyiv’s military administration, said a warehouse with an area of around 3,000 square metres (32,300 square feet) was burning in the northern Podil district.

“There are many wounded, the number is being clarified,” he said.

In other districts of the city, an uninhabited multistorey block of flats also caught fire and a private house was damaged, Popko said.

Maternity hospital struck

In the central Shevchenko district, a residential building was damaged and there was also a fire in a warehouse with six believed to be injured, Popko said.

Klitschko wrote on social media that there appeared to be three people still under rubble of the warehouse while three others had been rescued.

The overnight attacks came days after Ukraine struck a Russian warship in the occupied Crimean port of Feodosia in a major setback for the Russian navy.

Drones and missiles struck at least five other Ukrainian cities on Friday, including Kharkiv in the northeast, Lviv in the west, Dnipro in the east and Odesa in the south, the cities’ mayors and police said.

“So far we have counted 22 strikes in different districts of Kharkiv,” the mayor, Igor Terekhov, said on television.

“There are currently seven injured in hospital. Unfortunately one person has died.”

In Lviv, governor Maksym Kozytsky said that “one person was killed and three wounded”.

In Dnipro, the mayor, Borys Filatov, said there were injured and dead. The health ministry said that a maternity hospital in the city had been “severely damaged”.

Two people were killed in the Black Sea port city of Odesa and at least 15 were injured, including two children, as missiles hit residential buildings, the regional governor said.

Ukraine’s southern command said 14 attack drones had been destroyed in the south of the country and there were no casualties reported.

The Polish army said a Russian missile passed through Polish airspace on Friday, entering from and then back into Ukraine, as Russia pummelled Ukraine with the barrage. 

“Everything indicates that a Russian missile entered Polish airspace … It also left our airspace,” General Wieslaw Kukula, chief of the general staff of the Polish armed forces, told reporters. 

“The object arrived from the Ukrainian border,” Colonel Jacek Goryszewski, spokesman of the operational command of the armed forces, earlier told news channel TVN24. 

“There was intense shelling of Ukrainian territory at night so this incident could be linked to that.” 

He said the airspace violation occurred near the Polish border city of Zamosc. 

Crucial Western support

British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak on Friday said Moscow’s latest missile strikes on Ukraine showed Russian President Vladimir “Putin will stop at nothing to achieve his aim of eradicating freedom and democracy”.

“We will not let him win. We must continue to stand with Ukraine – for as long as it takes,” he added on X, formerly Twitter.

On Thursday, President Volodymyr Zelensky thanked the United States for releasing the last remaining package of weapons available for Ukraine under existing authorisation, as uncertainty surrounds further aid to his war-torn country.

Zelensky had warned that any change in policy from the US – Kyiv’s main backer – could have a strong impact on the course of the war.

“I thank President Joe Biden, Congress, and the American people for the $250 million military aid package announced yesterday,” Zelensky said on social media.

In an interview published on Friday, Christian Freuding, a German general who oversees the German army’s support for Kyiv, said Russia was severely weakened but was showing greater “resilience” than Western allies had expected at the start of the war.

“We perhaps did not see, or did not want to see, that they are in a position to continue to be supplied by allies,” he told the Sueddeutsche Zeitung newspaper.

© France Médias Monde graphic studio

(FRANCE 24 with AFP, Reuters, AP)

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Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny jailed for 19 more years

Russian President Vladimir Putin refuses to refer to Alexei Navalny by name even, typically calling him “that gentleman”.

A Russian court convicted imprisoned opposition leader Alexei Navalny of extremism charges and sentenced him to an additional 19 years in prison Friday. 

Navalny is already serving a nine-year term on a variety of charges that he says were politically motivated.

The new charges against the politician relate to the activities of Navalny’s anti-corruption foundation and statements by his top associates.

Amid the war in Ukraine, Russian President Vladimir Putin has unleashed a wave of unprecedented repression of dissent, reminiscent of the Soviet era.

Almost all major opponents have now been thrown into prison or driven into exile. Thousands of ordinary citizens have also been prosecuted for denouncing the conflict, some receiving heavy sentences.

After the sentencing, a tweet posted on Navalny’s account called on Russians to resist Vladimir Putin’s regime:

“The sentencing figure is not for me. It is for you. You, not me, are being frightened and deprived of the will to resist. You are being forced to surrender your country of Russia without a fight to the gang of traitors, thieves, and scoundrels who have seized power. Putin must not achieve his goal. Do not lose the will to resist.”

A longtime opponent of the Russian president, Navalny was hounded by the authorities before the Ukraine invasion, but his fate has worsened since.

He was imprisoned on his return to Russia at the beginning of 2021, after surviving an assassination attempt by poisoning he attributes to the Russian security services. 

He has since been sentenced twice on charges his supporters say are trumped up. 

Navalny, regularly placed in solitary confinement and faced with health problems, said on Thursday he expected a “long, Stalinist sentence”.

“The formula to calculate it is simple: what the prosecutor asked for, minus 10-15%. They asked for 20 years, they will give 18 or something like that,” he said in an online message conveyed by his relatives. 

International reaction

Posting on Twitter, the European Union’s top diplomat, Josep Borrell, said Navalny was sentenced for “legitimate political and anti-corruption activities”, and said the verdict “demonstrates the continued instrumentalisation of the Russian legal system”. 

The President of the European Council, Charles Michel, also took to Twitter to condemn what he called a “sham trial” and praise Navaly’s “courage to speak critically against the Kremlin”. 

Both Michel and Borrell reiterated the EU’s call for Navaly’s immediate and unconditional release.  

The US State Department joined them in that call and condemned Navalny’s new sentence as “an unjust conclusion to an unjust trial”. 

“For years, the Kremlin has attempted to silence Navalny and prevent his calls for transparency and accountability from reaching the Russian people”, it said. “By conducting this latest trial in secret and limiting his lawyers’ access to purported evidence, Russian authorities illustrated yet again both the baselessness of their case and the lack of due process afforded to those who dare to criticize the regime”.

United Nations human rights chief Volker Türk said Navalny’s new sentence “raises renewed serious concerns about judicial harassment and instrumentalisation of the court system for political purposes in Russia” and called for his release.

Navalny made a name for himself investigating corruption in Putin’s circle. 

Many outside Russia came to know him from the Oscar-winning, self-titled documentary based on the events related to his poisoning with a nerve agent in Russia and the subsequent investigation in 2020. 

However, he is criticised by some for statements seen as “racist” and “imperialistic” made in the past. 

His Anti-Corruption Fund (FBK) was effectively banned in 2021 for “extremism”.

The 45-year-old lawyer turned blogger has become a fierce critic of Russia’s war in Ukraine, railing against the conflict from his prison cell. 

During his trial, he mocked the “tens of thousands of dead in the most stupid and senseless war of the 21st century”.

“Sooner or later (Russia) will recover. And it depends on us what it will rely on in the future,” he added.

The Kremlin presents Navalny as a simple criminal, trying to separate legal proceedings from politics. 

Navalny is able to bring messages to the outside world through his lawyers. He often recounts prison life and denounces, usually ironically, the harassment he suffers. 

He claims to have been sent into solitary confinement 17 times, where he was forced to listen to speeches by Putin.

The Russian president refuses to refer to him by name even to this day, typically calling him “that gentleman”. 

The conditions of Navalny’s detention could worsen further following Friday’s verdict. Prosecutors have called for his transfer to a penal colony with a “special regime”. 

These prisons have a sinister reputation in Russia and are usually reserved for the most dangerous criminals and lifers.

Navalny’s legal marathon also risks not stopping on Friday. He is also being prosecuted for “terrorism” in another case. Few details are known at this stage but he risks life in prison.

‘Optimistic spirit’

The politician is currently serving his sentence in a maximum-security prison — Penal Colony No. 6 in the town of Melekhovo, about 230 kilometres east of Moscow.

He has spent months in a tiny one-person cell, also called a “punishment cell,” for purported disciplinary violations, such as an alleged failure to button his prison clothes properly, introduce himself appropriately to a guard or to wash his face at a specified time.

Navalny’s spokeswoman Kira Yarmysh told The Associated Press said prison officials once again placed Navalny in the punishment cell right after his closing arguments in late July and that he was released from it only on Friday for the verdict hearing.

On social media, Navalny’s associates urged supporters to come to Melekhovo on Friday to express solidarity with the politician.

About 40 supporters from different Russian cities gathered outside the colony, one of them told the AP in the messaging app Telegram. Yelena, who spoke on condition that her last name was withheld for safety reasons, said the supporters weren’t allowed into the colony but decided to stay outside until the verdict was announced: “People think it’s important to be nearby at least like that, for moral support. We will be waiting.”

Navalny was ordered to serve the new prison term in a “special regime” penal colony, a term that refers to the Russian prisons with the highest level of security and the harshest inmate restrictions.

It wasn’t immediately clear when he would be transferred to such a colony from the Melekhovo prison. Yarmysh said Navalny’s lawyers will definitely appeal the verdict, so it will not take effect until the appeal is ruled on.

Russian law stipulates that only men given life sentences or “especially dangerous recidivists” are sent to those types of prisons.

The country has many fewer “special regime” colonies compared to other types of adult prisons, according to state penitentiary service data: 35 colonies for “dangerous recidivists” and six for men imprisoned for life. Maximum-security colonies are the most widespread type, with 251 currently in operation.

Still, Navalny is “always in this optimistic spirit,” Yarmysh said. “It seems to me that he is probably the biggest optimist among all of us,” she added. “This happens because Alexei is absolutely convinced in what he’s doing and confident that he is right. This, of course, helps him cope with everything and continue doing what he does.”

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Armed rebellion by Wagner chief Prigozhin underscores erosion of Russian legal system

Russia’s rebellious mercenary chief Yevgeny Prigozhin walked free from prosecution for his June 24 armed mutiny, and it’s still unclear if anyone will face any charges in the aborted uprising against military leaders or for the deaths of the soldiers killed in it.

Instead, a campaign is underway to portray the founder of the Wagner Group military contractor as driven by greed, with only hints of an investigation into whether he mishandled any of the billions of dollars in state funds.

Until last week, the Kremlin has never admitted to funding the company, with private mercenary groups technically illegal in Russia. But President Vladimir Putin revealed the state paid Wagner almost $1 billion in just one year, while Mr. Prigozhin’s other company earned about the same from government contracts. Mr. Putin wondered aloud whether any of it was stolen.

Also Read | Explained: Understanding the Wagner mutiny

The developments around Mr. Prigozhin, who remains unpunished despite Mr. Putin’s labelling of his revolt as treason, underscored what St. Petersburg municipal council member Nikita Yuferev called the “gradual erosion of the legal system” in Russia.

Andrei Kolesnikov, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Russia Eurasia Center, writing about the mutiny in a column, concluded: “The fabric of the state is disintegrating.”

After Putin indicated the government would probe financial irregularities by Mr. Prigozhin’s companies, state TV picked up that cue.

Commentator Dmitry Kiselyov said Wagner and another company owned by Prigozhin earned over 1.7 trillion rubles ($18.7 billion) through government contracts. Russian business daily Vedomosti cited a source close to the Defence Ministry as saying the earnings occurred between 2014 and 2023, years when both Prigozhin and Russian officials denied any ties to Wagner or even its existence.

“Big money made Prigozhin’s head spin,” Mr. Kiselyov said Sunday, saying the private army’s battlefield successes gave the mercenary boss “a feeling of impunity.”

One possible reason for Mr. Prigozhin’s mutiny, he said, was the Defence Ministry’s refusal to extend a multibillion-dollar contract with his legal catering company, Concord, to supply food to the army.

According to Mr. Kiselyov, Wagner earned 858 billion rubles from government contracts, while Concord earned another 845 billion. Those numbers were 10 times higher than what Putin gave last week.

Also unclear is whether Mr. Prigozhin will move to Belarus, Moscow’s closest ally, under a deal with the Kremlin to end the rebellion. Belarus’ authoritarian President Alexander Lukashenko said Thursday that Prigozhin was in Russia. The Kremlin refused comment.

Russian media on Wednesday — including popular state TV channel Russia 1 — showed video of searches of Mr. Prigozhin’s St. Petersburg offices and an opulent mansion he purportedly owned, complete with helipad and indoor swimming pool. They also showed a van with boxes of cash, as well as gold bars, wigs and weapons in the estate.

Russia 1 programs also alleged Mr. Prigozhin’s adult children amassed significant wealth through him and said the searches were a part of an ongoing investigation, contrasting his lifestyle to his anti-elite image.

“So it turns out, Yevgeny Prigozhin didn’t have enough and wanted more?” an anchor mused.

The goal of these revelations is “to smear the person, show he is an oligarch,” said Ilya Shumanov, Russia director for Transparency International, noting Mr. Prigozhin often made crude and plain-spoken attacks on the military leadership.

“And here they say that he’s a billionaire, and all this (money) isn’t his, it’s from the (state) budget, and he was sitting on it, and there would have been no private military company with the Defence Ministry,” Shumanov told The Associated Press.

The revelations raised questions of how the government could fund Wagner at all, given that laws prohibit mercenary activities, including funding and training private troops, that put the company in a legal gray area.

Until the rebellion, Putin always denied any link between the state and Mr. Prigozhin’s mercenaries. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said as recently as 2020 that “there is no such thing as a private military company in Russian law,” and that he wasn’t aware of one.

By then, however, Wagner had sent its soldiers-for-hire to Syria and African countries as Russia expanded its global influence. By Mr. Prigozhin’s own admission, his forces also operated in eastern Ukraine to support a separatist uprising and later fought there after the 2022 invasion.

Asked Monday about the legality of state funding for Wagner, Peskov refused comment.

Shumanov told AP that Wagner was likely funded either with cash through shell companies, or through government contracts via Mr. Prigozhin’s other entities. How much is impossible to know, he noted, but added it was clear Mr. Putin’s remarks “gave a green light” to investigate the Wagner chief’s finances.

“I’d wait several weeks, and I think there will definitely be a reaction from the security forces in terms of Mr. Prigozhin and his economic activities,” he said.

The Kremlin’s message is that “we are dealing with a thief, a corrupt person, a thief and an oligarch, who went too far and stole money from the budget,” Shumanov said: “This is a very clear explanation, and no one needs to be sacrificed except for Prigozhin.”

Besides the finances, there is the matter of whether anyone will face prosecution for the deaths of the Russian troops who died at the hands of Mr. Prigozhin’s fighters.

Russian media reported about 15 military troops were killed during the rebellion as thousands of his soldiers seized a military headquarters in the southern city of Rostov-on-Don, then headed for Moscow, shooting down military helicopters and other aircraft on what Prigozhin called his “march of justice.” At a June 27 Kremlin ceremony, Mr. Putin held a minute of silence to honor the dead, although he didn’t say how many were killed.

A deal struck with Mr. Prigozhin to end the uprising stipulated that the Federal Security Service, or FSB, would drop charges against him and his fighters of mounting a rebellion. That agreement went against Putin’s vow in a nationally televised address during the uprising to punish those behind it.

Instead, the Kremlin said Mr. Prigozhin agreed to end the mutiny and go to Belarus — a settlement that didn’t sit well with some.

Yuferev, the St. Petersburg municipal council member, filed a request with the Prosecutor General’s Office and the FSB, asking who would be punished for the rebellion.

Thousands of people “rolling toward Moscow on tanks shoot down aircraft, kill 15 troops. … The president speaks, says: I will punish all of you, you are mutineers,’ the FSB launches a case -– and then nothing,” he added.

He said authorities must respond in 30 days, and while he doesn’t expect a substantive reply, he at least hopes to draw attention to this “erosion of the legal system of a state. It is very interesting what they will write there, how they will justify people committing an armed rebellion,” Yuferev said.

Whether other charges will be filed is unclear. Prominent lawyer Ivan Pavlov told AP that mounting an armed rebellion is only one charge, and that Mr. Prigozhin may face others -– especially since deaths occurred — but so far, “no one is talking about it.” Another topic drawing official silence is how the FSB — the successor agency to the feared KGB — failed to prevent the uprising, even though it routinely boasts of averting terrorist attacks, sabotage plots and other major crimes.

Russian security experts Andrei Soldatov and Irina Borogan said the FSB’s Rostov department “barricaded itself in its city headquarters,” while its military counterintelligence operatives assigned to Wagner ”did nothing.”

After Mr. Prigozhin announced his intentions June 23 to act against Russia’s Defence Minister, the FSB issued a statement urging Wagner fighters not to follow the rogue commander and for the troops “to detain him.”

Soldatov and Borogan wrote in a recent article that such a call for the mercenaries to take that action was odd, since only law enforcement agencies and security services like the FSB have the power to detain people.

Mark Galeotti of University College, London, an analyst on Russian security affairs, said the rebellion tested previous assumptions that Putin could count on his security forces.

“Now, the first time there’s a real challenge we actually see, security forces are willing to hang back and wait and see what happens,” he told AP.

So far, there has been no negative impact on the FSB, which Galeotti called “Mr. Putin’s favoured institution,” having been a former member.

Asked by AP during a conference call with reporters Monday why the FSB failed to stop the mutiny, Kremlin spokesman Peskov refused comment, except to say that such services “perform their functions, they do it properly.”

He also noted Putin last week had praised soldiers, law enforcement and security officers and “expressed his gratitude” to them.

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Putin’s media machine turns on ‘traitor’ Prigozhin

From national hero to drug-addled, bewigged zero: the Kremlin’s propaganda machine has turned against Wagner Group founder Yevgeny Prigozhin.

In a sensational report on state-run Rossiya-1’s “60 Minutes” program on Wednesday evening, the Kremlin’s propaganda attack dogs played footage of what they claimed was a raid of Prigozhin’s mansion and offices, showing cash, guns, drugs, a helicopter, multiple (Russian) passports — and a closet full of terrible wigs.

“The investigation is continuing,” said pundit Eduard Petrov at the top of the program, referring to the probe into the mutiny led by Prigozhin last month, during which the leader of the Wagner Group of mercenaries marched his men to within 200 kilometers of Moscow in a bid to oust the country’s military leadership. “In reality, no one planned to close this case,” he added.

It was an open declaration of war on Prigozhin, and came after Russian President Vladimir Putin and his aides issued improbable assurances that the criminal case into those who had organized the mutiny would be dropped if the warlord and his Wagnerites agreed to either disarm, sign contracts with the Russian defense ministry, or leave for Belarus. On Thursday morning, Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, who ostensibly negotiated the exile agreement with Prigozhin and Putin, told state media the warlord was not in the country.

“We need to figure out who was on whose side,” Petrov pronounced on “60 Minutes.” “Who was on the mutineers’ side? They should be punished and brought to criminal justice. So the nation understands that if a person acts against their government, they will be punished very, very harshly. Not ‘see you later, I’m going out.’”

“Tomes” of evidence is being combed over by Russian authorities, a gloating Petrov told the audience of the evening show. “Very soon, very very soon, we will hear what stage the criminal case is at.”

Cue: Footage — obtained from unnamed siloviki (a term used to describe members of the military or security services) — of Russia’s special forces raiding what Petrov described as Prigozhin’s “nest” — aka the offices of his now-shuttered Patriot Media company, and his palatial home.

“I believe the image of Yevgeny Prigozhin as a champion of the people was entirely created by Yevgeny Prigozhin’s well-fed media empire,” Petrov said contemptuously and seemingly unironically — never mind that Rossiya-1 itself portrayed Prigozhin as a hero mere weeks ago.

Remaking a murder

Until recently, the Kremlin’s propagandists painted Prigozhin, a 62-year-old one-time caterer and convicted felon, as a macho hero, a Russian Rambo decapitating traitors with sledgehammers on the front line.

Things got complicated when Prigozhin began publicly railing against Russia’s Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and Chief of the General Staff Valery Gerasimov, ranting and raging to his growing cadre of devoted fans on social media.

Still, Prigozhin never criticized Putin, and Putin allowed Prigozhin to continue building his brand, so long as his men kept holding down the fort in the most brutal battles in the war on Ukraine. Then Prigozhin crossed the line by marching his men on Moscow.

Putin’s retribution was always going to be brutal — first, though, he’s destroying Prigozhin’s image and undermining his reputation.

Back to Wednesday night’s “60 Minutes.”

“Why did we forget about Prigozhin’s past?” an impassioned Petrov asked. “Everyone knew about it. Everyone talked about it. Spoke about the fact that he has been on trial twice. His criminal past.”

Showing footage of what he said was Prigozhin’s 600 million ruble (€6 million) mansion, Petrov crowed: “Let’s see how this champion of the truth lived — a twice-convicted champion — a champion who spoke about how everyone around him is stealing.

“Inside Yevgeny Prigozhin’s little house there’s currency lying around like this, in a box, held together by rubber bands,” Petrov continued. “Now let’s see the palace of the fighter of corruption and criminality, Yevgeny Prigozhin. Here’s his palace. Here’s his house. His daughter sometimes posts videos from here, by the way — and she’s not always in good condition.”

Then, the pièce de résistance of the video: a closet full of bad wigs.

“Oh!” exclaimed Petrov as the footage rolled. “This is a closet full of Yevgeny Prigozhin’s secrets — wigs! Why does he need wigs at his house?”

It wasn’t long until Telegram, the social media platform popular among Russians, was flooded with photos of Prigozhin in a variety of wigs and disguises. (Though intriguingly, the photos appeared to come from a Prigozhin-friendly account called “Release the Kraken,” which said it had sourced them from the Patriot Media archive.)

The program also aired footage of what Petrov speculated were drugs found in Prigozhin’s mansion. A Prigozhin-friendly Telegram account which has previously featured voice messages from the warlord himself denied the house in the video belonged to Prigozhin, and claimed the “drugs” were actually laundry detergent.

Divide and conquer

Wednesday night’s program was also designed to reassure Russians that not all Wagner fighters were traitors and mutineers — with his war effort stuttering, Putin can’t afford to lose tens of thousands of men from the front.

“There were worthy people in Wagner,” Petrov insisted — moments after a diatribe about Prigozhin recruiting some of Russia’s worst criminals into the mercenary army’s ranks.

“The majority!” cut in “60 Minutes” host Yevgeny Popov. “The majority of people acted heroically, took cities, served in good faith … and bought their freedom with blood.”

“What’s absolutely clear: Prigozhin is a traitor,” Popov continued. “But Wagnerites — the majority of them are heroic people who with guns in hand defended our motherland. And many of them were lied to.”

Referring to Prigozhin’s Concord catering company and other businesses that Putin admitted were fully funded by the Russian state, Popov said the warlord had received “billions in contracts.”

And seeking to cleave Prigozhin’s men from their exiled boss, Petrov said: “The question is whether this money reached the fighters and heroes of Wagner!”

Translation: Watch your back, Yevgeny.

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“Attempts to create internal disorder will fail,” Putin tells nation

In his address to the nation, Russian President Vladimir Putin condemned what he called the “criminal actions” of those who staged an “armed mutiny.”

Russian President Vladimir Putin thanked the nation on Monday for unity after an armed rebellion over the weekend was aborted less than 24 hours after it began. Earlier in the day, the mercenary chief defended his short-lived insurrection in a boastful statement.

In his first appearance since the rebellion ended, Putin also thanked most of the mercenaries for not letting the situation deteriorate into “bloodshed.” He said all necessary measures have been taken to protect the country and the people from the rebellion.

He blamed “Russia’s enemies” and said they “miscalculated.”

The Kremlin also tried to project stability on Monday when authorities released a video of Russia’s defence minister reviewing troops in Ukraine.

Yevgeny Prigozhin, the head of the mercenary group, said he wasn’t seeking to stage a coup but was acting to prevent the destruction of Wagner, his private military company. “We started our march because of an injustice,” he said in an 11-minute statement, giving no details about where he was or what his plans were.

The feud between the Wagner Group leader and Russia’s military brass has festered throughout the war, erupting into a mutiny over the weekend when mercenaries left Ukraine to seize a military headquarters in a southern Russian city. They rolled seemingly unopposed for hundreds of miles toward Moscow before turning around after less than 24 hours on Saturday.

The Kremlin said it had made a deal for Prigozhin to move to Belarus and receive amnesty, along with his soldiers. There was no confirmation of his whereabouts Monday, although a popular Russian news channel on Telegram reported he was at a hotel in the Belarusian capital, Minsk.

Prigozhin taunted Russia’s military on Monday, calling his march a “master class” on how it should have carried out the February 2022 invasion of Ukraine. He also mocked the military for failing to protect Russia, pointing out security breaches that allowed Wagner to march 780 kilometres toward Moscow without facing resistance.

The bullish statement made no clearer what would ultimately happen to Prigozhin and his forces under the deal purportedly brokered by Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko.

Prigozhin said only that Lukashenko “proposed finding solutions for the Wagner private military company to continue its work in a lawful jurisdiction.” That suggested Prigozhin might keep his military force, although it wasn’t immediately clear which jurisdiction he was referring to.

The independent Russian news outlet Vyorstka claimed that construction of a field camp for up to 8,000 Wagner troops was underway in an area of Belarus about 200 kilometres north of the border with Ukraine.

The report couldn’t be independently verified. The Belarusian military monitoring group Belaruski Hajun said Monday on Telegram that it had seen no activity in that district consistent with construction of a facility, and had no indications of Wagner convoys in or moving towards Belarus.

Though the mutiny was brief, it was not bloodless. Russian media reported that several military helicopters and a communications plane were shot down by Wagner forces, killing at least 15. Prigozhin expressed regret for attacking the aircraft but said they were bombing his convoys.

Russian media reported that a criminal case against Prigozhin hasn’t been closed, despite earlier Kremlin statements, and some Russian lawmakers called for his head.

Andrei Gurulev, a retired general and current lawmaker who has had rows with the mercenary leader, said Prigozhin and his right-hand man Dmitry Utkin deserve “a bullet in the head.”

And Nikita Yurefev, a city council member in St. Petersburg, said he filed an official request with Russia’s Prosecutor General’s Office and the Federal Security Service, or FSB, asking who would be punished for the rebellion, given that Russian President Vladimir Putin vowed in a Saturday morning address to punish those behind it.

It was unclear what resources Prigozhin can draw on, and how much of his substantial wealth he can access. Police searching his St. Petersburg office amid the rebellion found 4 billion rubles (€44 million) in trucks outside the building, according to Russian media reports confirmed by the Wagner boss. He said the money was intended to pay his soldiers’ families.

Russian media reported that Wagner offices in several Russian cities had reopened on Monday and the company had resumed enlisting recruits.

In a return to at least superficial normality, Moscow’s mayor announced an end to the “counterterrorism regime” imposed on the capital Saturday, when troops and armoured vehicles set up checkpoints on the outskirts and authorities tore up roads leading into the city.

The Defence Ministry published a video of defence chief Sergei Shoigu in a helicopter and then meeting with officers at a military headquarters in Ukraine. It was unclear when the video was shot. It came as Russian media speculated that Shoigu and other military leaders have lost Putin’s confidence and could be replaced.

Before the uprising, Prigozhin had blasted Shoigu and General Staff Chief General Valery Gerasimov with expletive-ridden insults for months, accusing them of failing to provide his troops with enough ammunition during the fight for the Ukrainian town of Bakhmut, the war’s longest and bloodiest battle.

Prigozhin’s statement appeared to confirm analysts’ view that the revolt was a desperate move to save Wagner from being dismantled after an order that all private military companies sign contracts with the Defense Ministry by July 1.

Prigozhin said most of his fighters refused to come under the Defense Ministry’s command, and the force planned to hand over the military equipment it was using in Ukraine on June 30 after pulling out of Ukraine and gathering in the southern Russian city of Rostov-on-Don. He accused the Defense Ministry of attacking Wagner’s camp, prompting them to move sooner.

Russian political analyst Tatiana Stanovaya said on Twitter that Prigozhin’s mutiny “wasn’t a bid for power or an attempt to overtake the Kremlin,” but a desperate move amid his escalating rift with the military leadership.

While Prigozhin could get out of the crisis alive, he doesn’t have a political future in Russia under Putin, Stanovaya said.

It was unclear what the fissures opened by the 24-hour rebellion would mean for the war in Ukraine, where Western officials say Russia’s troops suffer low morale. Wagner’s forces were key to Russia’s only land victory in months, in Bakhmut.

The UK Ministry of Defence said Monday that Ukraine had “gained impetus” in its push around Bakhmut, making progress north and south of the town. Ukrainian forces claimed to have retaken Rivnopil, a village in southeast Ukraine that has seen heavy fighting.

US President Joe Biden and leaders of several of Ukraine’s European allies discussed the events in Russia over the weekend, but Western officials have been muted in their public comments.

Biden said Monday that the US and NATO were not involved in the short-lived insurrection. Speaking at the White House, Biden explained that he was cautious about speaking publicly because he wanted to give “Putin no excuse to blame this on the West and blame this on NATO.”

“We made clear that we were not involved, we had nothing to do with it,” he said.

Biden said the US was coordinating with allies to monitor the situation and maintain support for Ukraine.

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg concurred Monday that “the events over the weekend are an internal Russian matter.”

And Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said US Ambassador Lynne Tracy had contacted Russian representatives Saturday to stress that the US was not involved in the mutiny.

The events show the war is “cracking Russia’s political system,” said EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell.

“The monster that Putin created with Wagner, the monster is biting him now,” Borrell said. “The monster is acting against his creator.”

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West after Wagner rebellion: Talk softly and help Ukraine carry a bigger stick

As the United States and its European allies work to make sense of last weekend’s chaos in the Kremlin, they’re urging Kyiv to seize a “window” of opportunity that could help its counteroffensive push through Russian positions.

The forming response: Transatlantic allies are hoping, largely by keeping silent, to de-escalate the immediate political crisis while quietly pushing Ukraine to strike a devastating blow against Russia on the battlefield. It’s best to hit an enemy while it’s down, and Kyiv would be hard-pressed to find a more wounded Russia, militarily and politically, than it is right now. 

In public, American and European leaders stressed that they are preparing for any outcome, as it still remained unclear where the mercenary rebellion would ultimately lead. Wagner Group chief Yevgeny Prigozhin, who led the revolt, resurfaced on Monday, claiming he had merely wanted to protest, not topple the Russian government — while simultaneously insisting his paramilitary force would remain operational. 

“It’s still too early to reach a definitive conclusion about where this is going,” U.S. President Joe Biden said Monday afternoon. “The overall outcome of this remains to be seen.” 

For the moment, European officials see no greater threat to the Continent even as they watch for signs that Russian President Vladimir Putin’s two-decade hold on power might be slipping. 

Western allies attribute the relative calm to how they managed Prigozhin’s 24-hour tantrum. 

During the fighting, senior Biden administration figures and their European counterparts agreed on calls that they should remain “silent” and “neutral” about the mutiny, said three U.S. and European officials, who like others were granted anonymity to discuss fast-moving and sensitive deliberations.

In Monday’s meeting of top EU diplomats in Luxembourg, officials from multiple countries acted with a little-to-see-here attitude. No one wanted to give the Kremlin an opening to claim Washington and its friends were behind the Wagner Group’s targeting of senior Russian military officials. 

“We made clear that we were not involved. We had nothing to do with it,” Biden said from the White House Monday, relaying the transatlantic message. However, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov signaled on Monday that his regime would still look into the potential involvement of Western spies in the rebellion.

The broader question is how, or even if, the unprecedented moment could reverse Ukraine’s fortunes as its counteroffensive stalls.

The U.S. and some European nations have urged Ukraine for weeks to move faster and harder on the front lines. The criticism is that Kyiv has acted too cautiously, waiting for perfect weather conditions and other factors to align before striking Russia’s dug-in fortifications. 

Now, with Moscow’s political and military weaknesses laid bare, there’s a “window” for Ukraine to push through the first defensive positions, a U.S. official said. Others in the U.S. and Europe assess that Russian troops might lay down their arms if Ukraine gets the upper hand while command and control problems from the Kremlin persist.

“Russia does not appear to have the uncommitted ground forces needed to counter the multiple threats it is now facing from Ukraine, which extend over 200 kilometers [124 miles] from Bakhmut to the eastern bank of the Dnipro River,” U.K. Defense Secretary Ben Wallace said in the House of Commons Monday.

Ukrainian officials say there’s no purposeful delay on their part. Russia’s air power, literal minefields and bad weather have impeded Kyiv’s advances, they insist, conceding that they do wish they could move faster. 

“We’re still moving forward in different parts of the front line,” Yuri Sak, an adviser to Ukrainian Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov, said in an interview.

“Earlier it was not possible to assess the solidity of the Russian defenses,” Sak added. “Only now that we are doing active probing operations, we get a better picture. The obtained information will be factored into the next stages of our offensive operations.”

Analysts have long warned that, despite the training Ukrainian forces have received from Western militaries, it was unlikely that they would fight just like a NATO force. Kyiv is still operating with a strategy of attrition despite recent drills on combined-arms operations, maneuver warfare and longer-range precision fires.

During Monday’s gathering of top EU diplomats, Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said now was the time to pump more artillery systems and missiles into Kyiv’s arsenal, place more sanctions on Russia and speed up the training of Ukrainian pilots on advanced fighter jets. 

“Together, all these steps will allow the liberation of all Ukrainian territories,” he asserted.

In the meantime, European officials will keep an eye on Russia as they consider NATO’s own security. 

“I think that nobody has yet understood what is going on in Russia — frankly I have a feeling also that the leadership in Moscow has no clue what is going on in their own country,” quipped Latvia’s Foreign Minister and President-elect Edgars Rinkēvičs in a phone interview on Monday afternoon. 

“We are prepared, as we always would be, for a range of scenarios,” U.K. Prime Minister Rishi Sunak told reporters Monday.

NATO allies will continue to watch for whether Russia starts to crumble or if the autocrat atop the Kremlin can hold his nation together with spit and tape. 

“The question is how Putin will now react to his public humiliation. His reaction — to save his face and reestablish his authority — may well be a further crackdown on any domestic dissent and an intensified war effort in Ukraine,” said a Central European defense official. The official added that there’s no belief Putin will reach for a nuclear option during the greatest threat to his rule in two decades.

In the meantime, an Eastern European senior diplomat said, “we will increase monitoring, possibly our national vigilance and intelligence efforts. Additional border protection measures might be feasible. We need more allied forces in place.”

Alexander Ward reported from Washington. Lili Bayer reported from Brussels. Suzanne Lynch reported from Luxembourg. Cristina Gallardo reported from London. 

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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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Turkish century: History looms large on election day

ISTANBUL — From the Aegean coast to the mountainous frontier with Iran, millions of Turks are voting at the country’s 191,884 ballot boxes on Sunday — with both President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his main rival Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu warning the country is at a historical turning point.

In the last sprints of the nail-bitingly close election race, the dueling candidates have both placed heavy emphasis on the historical resonance of the vote falling exactly 100 years after the foundation of the secular Turkish republic by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk in 1923.

In the Istanbul district of Ümraniye on the final day of campaigning, Erdoğan told voters the country was on “the threshold of a Turkish century” that will be the “century of our children, our youth, our women.”

Erdoğan’s talk of a Turkish century is partly a pledge to make the country stronger and more technologically independent, particularly in the defense sector. Over the past months, the president has been quick to associate himself with the domestically-manufactured Togg electric car, the “Kaan” fighter jet and Anadolu, the country’s first aircraft carrier.

But Erdoğan’s Turkish century is about more than home-grown planes and ships. Few people doubt the president sees 2023 as a key threshold to accelerate his push away from Atatürk’s secular legacy and toward a more religiously conservative nation. Indeed, his campaign has been characterized by a heavy emphasis on family values and bitter rhetoric against the LGBTQ+ community. Unsurprisingly, he wrapped up his campaign on Saturday night in Hagia Sophia — once Constantinople’s greatest church — which he contentiously reconverted from a museum back into a mosque, as it had been in Ottoman times.    

The state that Atatürk forged from the ashes of the Ottoman empire in 1923 was secular and modernizing, often along Western models, with the introduction of Latin letters and even the banning of the fez in favor of Western-style hats. In this regard, the Islamist populist Erdoğan is a world away from the ballroom-dancing, rakı-quaffing field marshal Atatürk.

The 2023 election is widely being cast as a decisive referendum on which vision for Turkey will win through, and Erdoğan has been keen to portray the opposition as sell-outs to the West and global financial institutions such as the International Monetary Fund. “Are you ready to bury at the ballot box those who promised to give over the country’s values ​​to foreigners and loan sharks?” he called out to the crowd in Ümraniye.

This is not a man who is casting himself as the West’s ally. Resisting pressure that Ankara should not cozy up so much to the Kremlin, Erdoğan snapped on Friday that he would “not accept” the opposition’s attacks on Russian President Vladimir Putin — after Kılıçdaroğlu complained of Russian meddling in the election.   

All about Atatürk

By contrast, Erdogan’s main rival Kılıçdaroğlu is trying to assume the full mantle of Atatürk, and is stressing the need to put the country back on the path toward European democratic norms after Erdoğan’s lurch toward authoritarianism. While Erdoğan ended his campaign in the great mosque of Hagia Sophia, Kılıçdaroğlu did so by laying flowers at Atatürk’s mausoleum.

Speaking from a rain-swept stage in Ankara on Friday night, the 74-year-old bureaucrat declared: “We will make all of Turkey Mustafa Kemal’s [Atatürk’s] Turkey!”

In his speech, he slammed Erdoğan for giving Turkey over to drug runners and crony networks of oligarch construction bosses, saying the country had no place for “robbers.” Symbolically, he chided the president for ruling from his 1,150-room presidential complex — dubbed the Saray or palace — and said that he would rule from the more modest Çankaya mansion that Atatürk used for his presidency.

Warming to his theme of Turkey’s “second century,” Kılıçdaroğlu posted a video in the early hours of Saturday morning, urging young people to fully embrace the founding father’s vision. After all, he hails from the CHP party that Atatürk founded.

“We are entering the second century, young ones. And now we have a new generation, we have you. We have to decide altogether: Will we be among those who only commemorate Atatürk — like in the first century — or those who understand him in this century? This generation will be of those who understand,” he said, speaking in his trademark grandfatherly tone from his book-lined study.

At least in the upscale neighborhood of Beşiktaş, on Saturday night, all the talk of Atatürk was no dry history lesson. Over their final beers — before an alcohol sale ban comes in force over election day — young Turks punched the air and chanted along with a stirring anthem: “Long Live Mustafa Kemal Pasha, long may he live.”

In diametric opposition to Erdoğan, who has detained opponents and exerts heavy influence over the judiciary and the media, Kılıçdaroğlu is insisting that he will push Turkey to adopt the kind of reforms needed to move toward EU membership.

When asked by POLITICO whether that could backfire because some hostile EU countries would always block Turkish membership, he said the reforms themselves were the most important element for Turkey’s future.

“It does not matter whether the EU takes us in or not. What matters is bringing all the democratic standards that the EU foresees to our country,” he said in an exclusive interview on the sidelines of a rally in the central city of Sivas. “We are part of Western civilization. So the EU may accept us or not, but we will bring those democratic standards. The EU needs Turkey.”

Off to the polls

Polling stations — which are set up in schools — open at 8 a.m. on election day and close at 5 p.m. At 9 p.m. media can start reporting, and unofficial results are expected to start trickling in around midnight.

The mood is cautious, with rumors swirling that internet use could be restricted or there could be trouble on the streets if there are disputes over the result.

The fears of some kind of trouble have only grown after reports of potential military or governmental involvement in the voting process.

Two days before the election, the CHP accused Interior Minister Süleyman Soylu of preparing election manipulation. The main opposition party said Soylu had called on governors to seek army support on election night. Soylu made no public response.  

Turkey’s Supreme Election Council (YSK) has rejected the interior ministry’s request to collect and store election results on its own database. The YSK also banned the police and gendarmerie from collecting election results. 

Erdoğan himself sought to downplay any fears of a stolen election. In front of a studio audience of young people on Friday, he dismissed as “ridiculous” the suggestion that he might not leave office if he lost. “We came to power in Turkey by democratic means and by the courtesy of people. If they make a different decision whatever the democracy requires we will do it,” said the president, looking unusually gaunt, perhaps still knocked back by what his party said was a bout of gastroenteritis during the campaign.

The opposition is vowing to keep close tabs on all of the polling stations to try to prevent any fraud.

In Esenyurt Cumhuriyet Square, in the European part of Istanbul, a group of high-school students gathered on Saturday morning to greet Ekrem İmamoğlu, the popular mayor of Istanbul, who would be one of Kılıçdaroğlu’s vice presidents if he were to win.

Ilayda, 18, said she would vote for the opposition because of its position on democracy, justice and women’s rights.

When asked what would happen if Erdoğan won, she replied: “We plan to start a deep mourning. Our country as we know it will not be there anymore.”

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