Italy’s coast guard Friday found eight bodies, including the body of a pregnant woman, on a migrant vessel that was attempting to make the journey across the Mediterranean from Tunisia to Italy.
The bodies were unloaded on Italy’s Lampedusa island, the first stop for many migrants on the journey across the sea.
Dozens more Africans were aboard the vessel, according to ANSA, the Italian news agency.
Survivors of the journey told officials that three other people had died at sea, ANSA reported. They said a women died and fell into the water with her 4-month-old son, who drowned. In addition, survivors said a man passed out and fell into the water.
The Guardian reports that authorities on Malta had been alerted to the migrants’ situation at sea, but no rescue was dispatched. Prosecutors in Sicily have launched an investigation, the newspaper said.
Paco Rabanne, the Spanish-born designer known for perfumes sold worldwide and for metallic, space-age fashions, has died, the group that owns his fashion house announced Friday.
“The House of Paco Rabanne wishes to honor our visionary designer and founder who passed away today at the age of 88. Among the most seminal fashion figures of the 20th century, his legacy will remain,” the statement from beauty and fashion company Puig said.
Le Telegramme newspaper quoted the mayor of Vannes, David Robo, as saying that Rabanne died at his home in the Brittany region town of Portsall.
Rabanne’s fashion house shows its collections in Paris and is scheduled to unveil the brand’s latest ready-to-wear designs during the upcoming Feb. 27-March 3 fashion week.
Rabanne was known as a rebel designer in a career that blossomed with his collaboration with the family-owned Puig, a Spanish company that now also owns other design houses, including Nina Ricci, Jean Paul Gaultier, Caroline Herrera and Dries Van Noten. The company also owns the fragrance brands Byredo and Penhaligon’s.
“Paco Rabanne made transgression magnetic. Who else could induce fashionable Parisian women (to) clamor for dresses made of plastic and metal? Who but Paco Rabanne could imagine a fragrance called Calandre – the word means ‘automobile grill,’ you know – and turn it into an icon of modern femininity?” the group’s statement said.
Calandre perfume was launched in 1969, the first product by Puig in Spain, France and the United States, according to the company.
Born Francisco Rabaneda y Cuervo in 1934, the future designer fled the Spanish Basque country at age 5 during the Spanish Civil War and took the name of Paco Rabanne.
He studied architecture at Paris’ Beaux Arts Academie before moving to couture, following in the steps of his mother, a couturier in Spain. He said she was jailed at one point for being dressed in a “scandalous” fashion.
Rabanne sold accessories to well-known designers before launching his own collection.
He titled the first collection presented under his own name “12 unwearable dresses in contemporary materials.” His innovative outfits were made of various kinds of metal, including his famous use of mail, the chain-like material associated with Medieval knights.
Coco Chanel reportedly called Rabanne “the metallurgist of fashion.”
“My colleagues tell me I am not a couturier but an artisan, and it’s true that I’m an artisan. … I work with my hands,” he said in an interview in the 1970s.
In an interview given when he was 43, and now held in France’s National Audiovisual Institute, Rabanne explained his radical fashion philosophy: “I think fashion is prophetic. Fashion announces the future.” He added that women were harbingers of what lies on the horizon.
“When hair balloons, regimes fall,” Rabanne said. “When hair is smooth, all is well.”
The president of the Association of Fashion Designers of Spain, Modesto Lomba, said Rabanne “left an absolute mark on the passage of time. Let’s not forget that he was Spanish and that he triumphed inside and outside Spain.”
European Union officials pledged their unwavering support Friday to help Ukraine rebuild its infrastructure against Russia’s ongoing war, while the U.S. announced a fresh round of security assistance worth more than $2 billion.
Charles Michel, president of the European Council, and Ursula von der Leyen, president of the European Commission, met with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy in Kyiv for the 24th EU-Ukraine Summit. The EU officials said the union will support Ukraine “for as long as it takes.”
In a joint statement Friday, the officials promised to help rebuild Ukraine’s devastated critical infrastructure, providing energy support and services for the country “to get through the winter,” and beyond. They said that so far, the EU and its member states have provided assistance worth $570 million in the area of energy and reconstruction, and another $525 million for humanitarian efforts.
The officials underscored their commitment to promote Ukraine’s integration in the European Union, but they said there was no promise of fast-track membership.
Kyiv applied to become an EU member shortly after Russia’s invasion and wants to start formal accession talks as soon as possible.
“There are no rigid timelines, but there are goals that you have to reach,” von der Leyen told the news conference in response to a question about Ukraine’s accession drive. One of the conditions for Ukraine’s EU integration is its fight against corruption. The EU Commission president praised Kyiv for its expanded efforts to clamp down on graft.
Michel and von der Leyen condemned Russia’s escalating war against Ukraine and its citizens as “a manifest violation of international law, including the principles of the U.N. Charter.”
They emphasized the need to establish a Special Tribunal at The Hague for the investigation and prosecution of war crimes against Ukraine.
They also emphasized that the EU will never recognize as lawful any illegal annexation of Ukraine by Russia.
In addition, the EU officials unveiled a new package of sanctions, the 10th, against Russia. It will target the trade and technology that supports its war against Ukraine, von der Leyen said.
“With our partners, we must deny Russia the means to kill Ukrainian civilians and destroy homes and offices,” she said in a tweet.
US defense assistance
The United States announced Friday it would provide an additional $2.175 billion worth of military aid for Ukraine, including conventional and long-range rockets for U.S.-provided HIMARs, as well as other munitions and weapons. According to a U.S. official, the longer-range precision-guided rockets would double Ukraine’s strike range for the first time since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Brigadier General Patrick Ryder told a news briefing Friday the package includes “critical air defense capabilities to help Ukraine defend its people, as well as armored infantry vehicles and more equipment that Ukraine is using so effectively, including Javelin anti-tank missiles, artillery ammunition.”
Ryder added that “as part of the USAI [Ukraine Security Assistance Initiative] package, we will be providing Ground Launched Small Diameter Bombs to Ukraine.”
Friday’s aid package opens the door to many more deliveries of Ground Launched Small Diameter Bombs, which have a range of 94 miles, according to a document reviewed by Reuters.
USAI is an authority under which the United States procures capabilities from industry rather than delivering equipment that is drawn down from Defense Department stocks. This announcement represents the beginning of a contracting process to provide additional capabilities to Ukraine’s Armed Forces as part of U.S. efforts to strengthen Ukraine’s military over the near and long-term.
In total, the United States has now supplied nearly $30 billion in security assistance to Ukraine since the beginning of the Biden administration, the Defense Department reports. Since 2014, the United States has committed more than $32 billion in security assistance to Ukraine, and more than $29.3 billion since the beginning of Russia’s unprovoked, full-scale invasion on February 24, 2022.
Wagner Group recruitment
Meanwhile, Britain’s Defense Ministry said Friday the Wagner Group’s recruitment of convicts has dropped significantly. The ministry said the Russian Federal Penal Service experienced a decrease of 6,000 inmates since November. In comparison, the penal service had reported a drop of 23,000 inmates from September to November 2022.
“Wagner recruitment was likely a major contributing factor to this drop,” the British ministry said.
The Ukrainian presidential office said overall in the last day, Russian shelling in Ukraine had killed at least eight civilians and wounded 29 others.
Some information for this report came from The Associated Press, Reuters and Agence France-Presse.
An Iranian government-backed hacking team allegedly stole and leaked private customer data belonging to French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, security researchers at Microsoft said Friday.
The magazine was hacked in early January after it published a series of cartoons that negatively depicted Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei. The caricatures were part of a media campaign that Charlie Hebdo said was intended to support anti-government protests in the Islamic nation.
Representatives for the Iranian and French governments did not immediately respond to requests for comment. A press officer for Charlie Hebdo said the magazine had no comment on the matter “for the moment.”
Iran publicly vowed an “effective response” to the “insulting” cartoons, and summoned the French envoy in Tehran, while also ending activities of the French Institute of Research in Iran and saying it was re-evaluating France’s cultural activities in the country.
Hack part of larger operation
The hack-and-leak targeting Charlie Hebdo was part of a wider digital influence operation with techniques matching previously identified activity linked to Iranian state-backed hacking teams, Microsoft researchers said in a report. The group responsible is the same one that U.S. Department of Justice officials earlier identified as having conducted a “multi-faceted campaign” to interfere in the 2020 U.S. presidential election, Microsoft said. Iran denied the claims at the time.
Amid Iran’s criticism of the Khamenei cartoons, a group of hackers calling itself “Holy Souls” posted on an online forum that they had access to the names and contact details of more than 200,000 Charlie Hebdo subscribers. In their post, they said they would sell the information for 20 bitcoins (approximately $470,000 USD).
A sample of the leaked data was later released and verified as authentic by the French newspaper Le Monde.
“This information, obtained by the Iranian actor, could put the magazine’s subscribers at risk for online or physical targeting by extremist organizations,” the Microsoft researchers said.
Twitter used to amplify reach
To amplify their operation, the Iranian hackers used Twitter accounts with fake or stolen identities to criticize the Khamenei cartoons. Two accounts impersonating a Charlie Hebdo editor and a technology executive also posted the leaked data before Twitter banned them, Microsoft said.
Twitter’s press team did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
In response to Russia’s war in Ukraine, the US and NATO drastically ramped up defenses across eastern Europe. In Romania, for example, US troop numbers tripled, from approximately 1,000 troops in January of last year to about 3,000 today. VOA Pentagon correspondent Carla Babb joined up with some of those soldiers for a first-hand look at how the closest US troops to the war in Ukraine are holding the line with NATO allies.
More than 200 years after Napoleon met defeat at Waterloo, the bones of soldiers killed on that famous battlefield continue to intrigue Belgian researchers and experts, who use them to peer back to that moment in history.
“So many bones — it’s really unique!” exclaimed one such historian, Bernard Wilkin, as he stood in front of a forensic pathologist’s table holding two skulls, three femurs and hip bones.
He was in an autopsy room in the Forensic Medicine Institute in Liege, eastern Belgium, where tests are being carried out on the skeletal remains to determine from which regions the four soldiers they belong to came from.
That in itself is a challenge.
Half a dozen European nationalities were represented in the military ranks at the Battle of Waterloo, located 20 kilometers (12 miles) south of Brussels.
That armed clash of June 18, 1815 ended Napoleon Bonaparte’s ambitions of conquering Europe to build a great empire, and resulted in the deaths of around 20,000 soldiers.
The battle has since been pored over by historians, and — with advances in the genetic, medical and scanning fields — researchers can now piece together pages of the past from the remains buried in the ground.
Some of those remains have been recovered through archeological digs, such as one last year that allowed the reconstitution of a skeleton found not far from a field hospital the British Duke of Wellington had set up.
But the remains examined by Wilkin surfaced through another route.
‘Prussians in my attic’
The historian, who works for the Belgian government’s historical archives, said he gave a conference late last year and “this middle-aged man came to see afterwards and told me, ‘Mr Wilkin, I have some Prussians in my attic'”.
Wilkin, smiling, said the man “showed me photos on his phone and told me someone had given him these bones so he can put them on exhibit… which he refused to do on ethical grounds”.
The remains stayed hidden away until the man met Wilkin, who he believed could analyze them and give them a decent resting place.
A key item of interest in the collection is a right foot with nearly all its toes — that of a “Prussian soldier” according to the middle-aged man.
“To see a foot so well preserved is pretty rare, because usually the small bones on the extremities disappear into the ground,” noted Mathilde Daumas, an anthropologist at the Universite Libre de Bruxelles who is part of the research work.
As for the attributed “Prussian” provenance, the experts are cautious.
The place it was discovered was the village of Plancenoit, where troops on the Prussian and Napoleonic sides bitterly fought, Wilkin said, holding out the possibility the remains might be those of French soldiers.
Scraps of boots and metal buckles found among the remains do point to uniforms worn by soldiers from the Germanic side arrayed against the French.
But “we know that soldiers stripped the dead for their own gear,” the historian said.
Clothes and accessories are not reliable indicators of the nationality of skeletons found on the Waterloo battlefield, he stressed.
More dependable, these days, are DNA tests.
Dr Philippe Boxho, a forensic pathologist working on the remains, said there were still parts of the bones that should yield DNA results, and he believed another two months of analyses should yield answers.
“As long as the subject matter is dry we can do something. Our biggest enemy is humidity, which makes everything disintegrate,” he explained.
The teeth in particular, with traces of strontium, a naturally occurring chemical element that accumulates in human bones, can point to specific regions through their geology, he said.
Wilkin said an “ideal scenario” for the research would be to find that the remains of the “three to five” soldiers examined came from both the French and Germanic sides.
NATO on Friday expressed concern that Russia was failing to comply with its last remaining nuclear arms control treaty with the United States.
As tensions soar over Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, leading NATO power the United States has accused Moscow of not meeting its commitments under the decade-old New START pact.
On Tuesday, Washington slammed Russia for suspending inspections under the treaty and cancelling talks but did not accuse its Cold War rival of expanding its nuclear warhead arsenal beyond agreed limits.
“NATO allies agree the New START treaty contributes to international stability by constraining Russian and US strategic nuclear forces,” the 30-strong alliance said in a statement.
“Therefore, we note with concern that Russia has failed to comply with legally binding obligations under the New START treaty.”
NATO member states said they “call on Russia to fulfil its obligations” by allowing inspections and returning to talks.
Russia has hit back at Washington by accusing it of destroying weapons control agreements between the two countries.
Diplomacy between the two powers has ground to a bare minimum over the past year as the United States leads a drive to sanction Russia and arm Ukraine with billions of dollars in weapons.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has issued thinly veiled threats to use nuclear weapons, reviving Cold War era fears.
Moscow announced in early August that it was suspending U.S. inspections of its military sites under New START. It said it was responding to American obstruction of inspections by Russia, a charge denied by Washington.
The Kremlin then indefinitely postponed talks under New START that had been due to start on November 29 in Cairo, accusing the United States of “toxicity and animosity.”
New START, signed by then President Barack Obama in 2010 when relations were warmer, restricted Russia and the United States to a maximum of 1,550 deployed strategic nuclear warheads each — a reduction of nearly 30 percent from the previous limit set in 2002.
It also limits the number of launchers and heavy bombers to 800, still easily enough to destroy human life on Earth.
The downfall of a convicted mafia killer, on the run since 2006, came about in a French pizza parlor.
Edgardo Greco was so confident in his alias as Paolo Dimitrio that he felt free to do an interview with a local Saint-Etienne newspaper in 2021 and even allowed the paper to take and publish a photograph of him.
Greco’s interview about the wonderful Italian cooking at his restaurant in the French newspaper was the beginning of the end for him. The 63-year-old mobster, alleged to be a member of the infamous ‘Ndrangheta organized crime mob, was convicted in an Italian court of the 1991 murders of two brothers whose bodies were never found and the attempted murder of another man.
Italian and French authorities worked together with Interpol, and Greco was identified and arrested.
At a nuclear waste site in Normandy, robotic arms guided by technicians behind a protective shield maneuver a pipe that will turn radioactive chemicals into glass as France seeks to make safe the byproducts of its growing reliance on atomic power.
The fuel-cooling pools in La Hague, on the country’s northwestern tip, could be full by the end of the decade and state-owned Orano, which runs them, says the government needs to outline a long-term strategy to modernize its aging facilities no later than 2025.
While more nuclear energy can help France and other countries to reduce planet-warming emissions, environmental campaigners say it replaces one problem with another.
To seek solutions, President Emmanuel Macron, who has announced plans to build at least six new reactors by 2050, on Friday chairs the first of a series of meetings on nuclear policy that will discuss investments and waste recycling.
“We can’t have a responsible nuclear policy without taking into account the handling of used fuel and waste. It’s a subject we can’t sweep under the rug,” a government adviser told Reuters, speaking on condition of anonymity.
“We have real skills and a real technological advantage, especially over the United States. Russia is the only other country that is able to do what France does in terms of treatment and recycling.”
La Hague is the country’s sole site able to process and partially recycle used nuclear fuel.
France historically has relied on nuclear power for around 70% of its energy, although the share is likely to have fallen last year as the nuclear fleet suffered repeated outages.
Since the launch of the site at La Hague in 1976, it has treated nearly 40,000 tons of radioactive material and recycled some into nuclear fuel that can be reused. The waste that cannot be recycled is mixed with hardening slices of glass and buried for short-term storage underground.
But its four existing cooling pools for spent fuel rods and recycled fuel that has been reused risk saturation by 2030, according to French power giant EDF, which runs France’s 56-strong fleet of reactors, the world’s second biggest after the United States.
Should saturation happen, France’s reactors would have nowhere to place their spent fuel and would have to shut down — a worst-case scenario that led France’s Court of Audit to designate La Hague as “an important vulnerability point” in 2019.
Cool pools and deep clay
EDF is hurrying to build an extra refrigerated pool at La Hague, at a cost of $1.37 billion, to store spent nuclear fuel — a first step before the waste can be treated — but that will not be ready until 2034 at the earliest.
Meanwhile, France’s national agency for managing nuclear waste last month requested approval for a project to store permanently high-level radioactive waste.
The plan, called Cigéo, would involve placing the waste 500 meters below ground in a clay formation in eastern France.
Construction is expected in 2027 if it gets approval. Among those opposed to it are residents of the nearby village of Bure and anti-nuclear campaigners.
Jean-Christophe Varin, deputy director of the La Hague site, told Reuters Orano could be flexible to ensure more recycling is done at the facility and there were “several possible scenarios.”
However, he said they could not be worked on in detail in the absence of a strategic vision. Orano, for which EDF accounts for 95% of its recycling business, says it needs clear direction from the government no later than 2025, to give it time to plan the necessary investments.
The costs are likely to be high. Just keeping up with current operations at La Hague costs nearly $330 million a year.
Options EDF and Orano are considering include finding a way to recycle the used fuel more than once, but critics say the recycling itself creates more radioactive waste and is not a long-term solution. For now, the backup plan is to fit more fuel containers into the existing pools.
After being cooled in a pool for about seven years, used nuclear fuel is separated into non-recyclable leftovers that are turned into glass (4% of the material), plutonium (1%) to create a new nuclear fuel called MOX, on which around 40% of France’s reactors can run, and reprocessed uranium (95%).
The uranium in the past was sent to Russia for reenrichment and return for use in some EDF reactors, but EDF stopped doing that in 2013 as it was too costly.
In spite of the war in Ukraine, which has made many in the West avoid doing business with Russia, EDF is expected to resume sending uranium to Russia this year as the only country able to process it. It declined to confirm to Reuters it would do so.
The facility at La Hague, with its 1980s-era buildings and Star Wars-style control rooms, has its limitations.
“If we had to process MOX fuel in large quantities, the facility today isn’t adapted for it,” Varin said. “For multicycle recycling, the technology is not the same, so the modernization or replacement of installations” would require “significant” investments, he said.
On a freezing, windy day in eastern Romania, U.S. Army Sergeant Chase Williams is urging a team of soldiers to jump out of a hovering Blackhawk and rappel 25 meters to the snow-covered ground below.
“You know you just got to get over that fear. You just got to get over that ledge the first time,” Williams says of the 101st Airborne Division’s Air Assault course, a grueling program that some soldiers refer to as “the 10 toughest days in the Army.”
Williams and his fellow trainers have taught the 10-day program several times since last summer when 4,700 troops with the 101st Airborne Division deployed across eastern Europe, but the iteration completed this week was unique. For the first time ever, soldiers in the division offered their punishing air assault course to partners on European soil.
Graduates from the course at Mihail Kogalniceanu Air Base included U.S., Romanian, Dutch, French and Slovak soldiers.
It’s the latest example of how the division, deployed to Europe for the first time since World War II, is bolstering NATO’s eastern flank in response to Russia’s war in Ukraine.
In Romania, U.S. troop numbers have tripled from approximately 1,000 troops in January 2022 to about 3,000 today. A high-end missile launched from Russian-controlled Crimea could reach the soldiers based along the Black Sea in about seven minutes, according to U.S. Army Colonel Ed Matthaidess, commander of the 101st’s 2nd Brigade Combat Team.
“We are the closest U.S. Army formation to the fight in Ukraine right now,” Matthaidess told VOA.
Since their arrival, the 101st has spread out to fortify its positions across the country, and in other nations on NATO’s eastern flank.
“We’ve prepared our force for whatever eventuality, so we’ve reinforced protection around Mihail Kogalniceanu. We’ve dispersed our forces so we’re not a single target,” Matthaidess said.
During a helicopter ride along Romania’s coastline to the border with Ukraine, Matthaidess showed VOA how U.S. forces are holding the line with NATO allies.
“We’re taking it as close as we can to combat, right? So, we’re preparing for large-scale operations,” he said. “We’re exercising on the ground with which we might fight if we have to defend NATO.”
At a forward operating post just a few kilometers away from Ukrainian territory, several Humvees — some capable of carrying TOW antitank missiles, others equipped with a heavy machine gun or heavy grenade launcher — were gathering at a range for target practice.
Further south at an outpost filled with old farm buildings, U.S. soldiers trained Romanians on how to maneuver in urban terrain, going door-to-door clearing the area.
Matthaidess said the U.S. team has been watching Russian tactics in neighboring Ukraine “closely” and has adapted their training with partners to better suit what they see on the battlefield.
“We just got done with a big series of live fires, where we were attacking some trench lines that look very similar to what you might see across the border,” he told VOA.
The team also started incorporating small drones in some exercises, shooting down systems “very similar to what’s flooding the battlefield right now” in Ukraine, he added.
The 2nd Brigade Combat Team will leave Romania in a couple of months, but the Pentagon recently confirmed that the U.S. military’s increased presence in the country will continue at least through this year. The 101st Airborne Division’s 1st Brigade Combat Team is set to replace Matthaidess’ team in what is expected to be a nine-month deployment.
That’s reassuring to Major General Ciprian Marin, chief of the Romanian military’s Operations Directorate, who says he wants more U.S. troops and more partnered training.
During the 101st Airborne Division’s deployment, Romanian forces have been honing their existing defense skills with the Americans, while in the case of the air assault course, acquiring a new capability that Romanian ground forces didn’t have before this week.
“With war, it’s about life and death, and [working together] makes the difference between failure and success. So, if you want to be successful, we are to be together, to stick together, and build this interoperability,” Marin said.
Western naval forces are having to adapt to a new threat as Russia and other military powers develop new capabilities to target critical undersea infrastructure such as pipelines and cables.
The vulnerability of such infrastructure has long been recognized. Those concerns turned to reality in September last year, as the Nord Stream pipelines that carried gas from Russia to Germany ruptured spectacularly on the Baltic seabed near the Danish island of Bornholm, sending huge volumes of gas bubbling to the surface.
Swedish investigators found traces of explosives at the site. The West suspects Russia of sabotage. The Kremlin denies this and accuses Western nations of staging the attack.
“There has been a growing awareness of the vulnerability of critical national infrastructure, but the event in the Baltic Sea certainly brought the issue into sharp relief,” said analyst Sidharth Kaushal of Britain’s Royal United Services Institute, author of a recent report titled Navies and Economic Warfare.
Days after the incident, Britain announced plans to enhance its undersea defense capabilities.
“Our internet and energy are highly reliant on pipelines and cables,” British Defense Secretary Ben Wallace said October 2. “Russia makes no secret of its ability to target such infrastructure. So for that reason, I can announce we’ve recently committed to two specialist ships with the capability to keep our cables and pipelines safe.”
The first of those vessels is being fitted out by the British navy at a shipyard outside Liverpool and is due to enter service this year. It is designed to act as a “mother ship,” operating remote and autonomous systems for underwater surveillance and seabed warfare.
Millions of kilometers of undersea cables and pipelines carry the energy and data that power the global economy, Kaushal said. “A number of challengers to the West, Russia most notably, are developing bespoke capabilities to target precisely these vulnerabilities, things like special purpose submarines,” he told VOA.
Russia denies sabotaging the Nord Stream pipelines. But observers say the Kremlin increasingly sees Western subsea infrastructure as a vulnerability. In December, President Vladimir Putin oversaw the launch of four new naval vessels, including two nuclear-powered submarines. “They have highly accurate weapons and robotic complexes,” Putin announced.
Faced with that threat, NATO and the European Union last month launched a joint task force on protecting critical infrastructure. NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg outlined the alliance’s posture at a meeting of defense ministers in October.
“Any deliberate attack against allies’ critical infrastructure would be met with a united and determined response. … Hybrid and cyberattacks can trigger Article 5 [on collective self-defense], can constitute an armed attack against a NATO ally,” Stoltenberg said October 11.
The West must clarify its rules of engagement, analyst Kaushal said.
“What does one actually do when one observes, for example, a submarine tampering with critical national infrastructure, but not in a way that necessarily leads to an immediate loss of life?” Kaushal said.
“So actually, it’s more a question of how you change organizational practices to deal with this sort of activity.”
After struggling through much of 2022 under heavy international sanctions, the Russian economy has rebounded in recent months, as importers found new avenues of trade to bring consumer goods and other products into the country.
An International Monetary Fund report issued this week said the Russian economy would likely grow by 0.3% in 2023, rather than shrinking by 2.3% as it had previously projected.
The United States and its allies reacted to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 with a harsh regime of sanctions and export controls that many expected to collapse the Russian economy. In addition, many international businesses sharply reduced their sales to Russia, while others ceased doing business in the country entirely.
New research suggests that alternate supply routes and the ability to substitute goods made in Russia-friendly countries, like China, for Western-made alternatives have brought Russian imports back to prewar levels.
Experts noted that the need to “transship” Western products through friendly third countries has driven up the prices Russians pay for many goods. Additionally, in many cases, Russians are being forced to settle for some lower-quality substitutes, especially in the consumer electronics space.
However, the possibility that widespread shortages within Russia will force the Kremlin to give up on its invasion of Ukraine in the near term looks increasingly remote.
Main goal of sanctions
Western sanctions on Russia were aimed primarily at the Russian military and were meant to make it difficult for the Kremlin to access the supplies and equipment, particularly advanced technology like microprocessors, necessary for the war effort in Ukraine.
“The Russian sanctions are not comprehensive,” Jeffrey J. Schott, a senior fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics, told VOA. “They are designed to impair Russia’s military capability and make it difficult for the Russian regime to continue its military effort, both because of lack of resources over time, and because of growing civilian discontent.”
Russia has been allowed to continue selling many of its main export goods into the global market, including oil, gas, coal, fertilizers, uranium and food, providing cash to fund imports.
In addition to export controls on specific products, the U.S. and its allies levied significant sanctions on the Russian financial sector. This had the effect of complicating many trade-related transactions for products that were not, themselves, subject to sanctions.
Experts said that much of the rebound in trade volume has been the result of merchants finding viable workarounds that allow them to finance the flow of non-sanctioned goods.
A recent report from the Silverado Policy Accelerator, a Washington nonprofit, found that while Russian imports plummeted in the months immediately after the invasion, the dollar value of imports had rebounded to near pre-war levels by September.
In the 12 months beginning in October 2021, exports to Russia from the European Union fell by $4.6 billion, or 52%. The U.S. and the United Kingdom, which had far less trade with Russia to begin with, nevertheless cut their exports to the country by 85% and 89%, respectively.
According to Silverado, the difference was made up by a number of countries that dramatically increased their exports to Russia, including China, Belarus, Turkey, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Armenia and Uzbekistan.
Additionally, the report found, “Exports from many other countries rebounded from their spring 2022 lows, and some post-Soviet states increased their trans-shipments of goods produced by multinational firms that no longer export the goods directly to Russia.”
For example, the report documents that after Apple and Samsung, two of the world’s largest makers of smartphones, stopped delivering their products to Russia, orders for their products eventually surged in Armenia and Kazakhstan, with the phones being shipped on to Russia.
Experts said that while Russian imports of consumer goods may be approaching prewar levels, the blockade on military goods and advanced technology is still working reasonably well, if not perfectly.
Schott, of the Peterson Institute, said that sanctions are not “waterproof” and that all sanctions regimes experience some “leakage.”
“The longer sanctions are in place, the more time there is to try to figure out and negotiate workarounds — that happens everywhere,” he said. “If there’s enough economic incentive, people will take risks to profit from sanctions evasion.”
However, when it comes to military and high-tech gear, Schott said, “I’m not sure the leakage is comparable to what has happened in previous cases that have existed over time. I haven’t seen evidence of extensive violation of the sanctions.”
Bryan Early, a professor of political science at the State University of New York at Albany, told VOA that even if some sanctioned products are making it through to Russia, the sanctions appear to have been broadly effective in that they have made it more difficult and expensive for Russia to acquire what it needs to continue to prosecute the war.
“Sanctions are never going to be perfect,” he said. “Your baseline is not, ‘Do they disrupt everything?’ It’s, ‘If the sanctions weren’t in place, how easily would these transactions be taking place? And how much more cheaply would they be taking place? And how much more reliable would those trade networks actually be?’”
Early referred to U.S. intelligence reports from last year that said Russia had been scavenging microchips from household appliances for use in military equipment.
“If one of the ways that the Russian government is getting around the multilateral sanctions on semiconductors is by importing additional washing machines through third parties, like Georgia, to use in their military products, yes, that’s a sign that sanctions are being evaded,” he said.
“But it’s also a sign that the sanctions are working very, very well, if the world’s second-largest largest military is importing semiconductors from washing machines through small regional neighbors,” he said.
On Wednesday, in a sign of some sanctions “leakage,” the U.S. Treasury Department barred trade with 22 individuals and companies that it accused of helping Russia’s military evade sanctions. The move was part of an ongoing effort “to methodically and intensively target sanctions evasion efforts around the globe, close down key backfilling channels, expose facilitators and enablers, and limit Russia’s access to revenue needed to wage its brutal war in Ukraine,” the department said in a press release.
Among others, the sanctions targeted Russian arms dealer Igor Zimenkov and his son, Jonatan Zimenkov, as well as several entities the department characterized as “front companies” that do business with the Zimenkovs.
“Russia’s desperate attempts to utilize proxies to circumvent U.S. sanctions demonstrate that sanctions have made it much harder and costlier for Russia’s military-industrial complex to resupply Putin’s war machine,” said Deputy Secretary of the Treasury Wally Adeyemo.
In a statement issued on Wednesday, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said, “It has become increasingly difficult for Russia’s military-industrial complex to resupply the Kremlin’s war machine, forcing it to rely on nefarious suppliers, such as Iran and the DPRK [Democratic People’s Republic of Korea]. By trying to use proxies to circumvent U.S. sanctions, Russia demonstrates that our sanctions are having impact. Our work will continue.”
President Vladimir Putin evoked the spirit of the Soviet army that defeated Nazi German forces at Stalingrad 80 years ago to declare on Thursday that Russia would defeat a Ukraine supposedly in the grip of a new incarnation of Nazism.
In a fiery speech in Volgograd, known as Stalingrad until 1961, Putin lambasted Germany for helping to arm Ukraine and said, not for the first time, that he was ready to draw on Russia’s entire arsenal, which includes nuclear weapons.
“Unfortunately, we see that the ideology of Nazism in its modern form and manifestation again directly threatens the security of our country,” Putin told an audience of army officers and members of local patriotic and youth groups.
“Again and again, we have to repel the aggression of the collective West. It’s incredible but it’s a fact: We are again being threatened with German Leopard tanks with crosses on them.”
Russian officials have been drawing parallels with the struggle against the Nazis ever since Russian forces entered Ukraine almost a year ago.
Ukraine — which was part of the Soviet Union and itself suffered devastation at the hands of Hitler’s forces — rejects those parallels as spurious pretexts for a war of imperial conquest.
Stalingrad was the bloodiest battle of World War II, when the Soviet Red Army, at a cost of over 1 million casualties, broke the back of German invasion forces in 1942-43.
Putin evoked what he said was the spirit of the defenders of Stalingrad to explain why he thought Russia would prevail in Ukraine, saying the World War II battle had become a symbol of “the indestructible nature of our people.”
“Those who draw European countries, including Germany, into a new war with Russia, and … expect to win a victory over Russia on the battlefield, apparently don’t understand that a modern war with Russia will be quite different for them,” he added.
“We don’t send our tanks to their borders, but we have the means to respond, and it won’t end with the use of armored vehicles. Everyone must understand that.”
As Putin finished speaking, the audience gave him a standing ovation.
Putin had earlier laid flowers at the grave of the Soviet marshal who oversaw the defense of Stalingrad and visited the city’s main memorial complex, where he held a minute’s silence in honor of those who died during the battle.
Thousands of people lined Volgograd’s streets to watch a victory parade as planes flew overhead and modern and World War II-era tanks and armored vehicles rolled past.
Some of the modern vehicles had the letter “V” painted on them, a symbol used by Russia’s forces in Ukraine.
Irina Zolotoreva, 61, who said her relatives had fought at Stalingrad, saw a parallel with Ukraine.
“Our country is fighting for justice, for freedom,” she said. “We got victory in 1942, and that’s an example for today’s generation. I think we’ll win again now, whatever happens.”
The focal point for the commemorations was the Mamayev Kurgan memorial complex, on a hill overlooking the River Volga dominated by a hulking statue called The Motherland Calls — of a woman brandishing a giant sword.
The five-month-long battle reduced the city that bore Soviet leader Josef Stalin’s name to rubble, while claiming an estimated 2 million dead and wounded on both sides.
A new bust of Stalin was erected in Volgograd on Wednesday along with two others — of Soviet Marshals Georgy Zhukov and Alexander Vasilyevsky.
Despite Stalin’s record of presiding over a famine that killed millions and political repression that killed hundreds of thousands, Russian politicians and school textbooks have in recent years stressed his role as a successful wartime leader who turned the Soviet Union into a superpower.
Zimbabwe is attempting to boost its agricultural sector with support from controversial partner Belarus, which is under sanctions for supporting Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko visited Zimbabwe this week on his first trip to sub-Saharan Africa. Columbus Mavhunga reports from Harare, Zimbabwe. Camera: Blessing Chigwenhembe.
Site of the biggest nuclear accident in history, Chernobyl has become over the years one of the biggest tourist attractions in Ukraine. Despite still harboring high radiation levels, Chernobyl was one of Russia’s first military targets in its invasion of Ukraine almost a year ago. The Russians took control of the plant, the villas, and the small town that lent its name to the region for nearly two months. Now Chernobyl is back under Ukrainian control, but fears of another invasion remain.
The United States says Russia is violating the New START Treaty, the last remaining nuclear arms treaty between the two countries. In August, Russia suspended inspections of its nuclear facilities as required by the treaty. VOA’s Senior Diplomatic Correspondent Cindy Saine reports. Contributed to by Harry Knyagnitsky.
Freddy Versluys does not like to be called an arms dealer. But he does have a big warehouse full of second-hand tanks for sale.
Standing next to dozens of German-made Leopard 1 tanks and other military vehicles in the chilly warehouse in eastern Belgium, Versluys stressed he is the CEO of two defense companies with a broad range of activities, such as making sensors for spacecraft.
But buying and selling weapons is part of his business, too. And it’s the tanks that have brought him into the spotlight over the past few days, as he has engaged in a public battle with Belgian Defense Minister Ludivine Dedonder over the possibility of sending them to Ukraine.
While other Western nations have pledged in recent weeks to send main battle tanks to help Ukraine repel Russia’s invasion, Belgium has not joined that group, for one reason above all: It doesn’t have any tanks left. It sold the last of them – a batch of 50 – to Versluys’s company more than five years ago.
Asked why he bought the tanks, Versluys, a silver-haired man in his mid-60s, said that was his company’s business model – it bought unwanted military equipment in the hope that someone else would want it in future.
“There are still countries in the world who have these Leopard 1 tanks. So there’s always a possibility either to sell spare parts or to sell additional tanks,” he said.
“Of course, it’s a gamble,” he added. “Maybe tomorrow we will have to scrap them [or] 10 years later they can still be there.”
Dedonder has said the government has explored the idea of buying back tanks to send to Ukraine. But she has blasted the prices quoted as unreasonable and extremely high. Tanks sold for 10-15,000 euros each are being offered for sale at 500,000 euros, despite not being operational, she has said.
The spat highlights a predicament faced by Western governments as they scramble to find more weapons for Ukraine after almost a year of intense warfare; arms they discarded as obsolete are now in high demand, and many are now in the hands of private companies.
Dedonder hasn’t named Versluys’s company, OIP Land Systems, in her accusations. But Versluys is sure he is her target. Dedonder declined a request for an interview.
Versluys has taken the unusual step of going public to dispute the minister’s assertions, offering a rare insight into the workings of a business that often prefers to keep a low profile.
Versluys said his firm bought the 50 tanks for about 2 million euros and only 33 were useable. That would mean a unit price of 40,000 euros for 50 tanks, or some 60,600 euros for 33.
He said his selling price could range anywhere from several hundred thousand to close to a million euros but that would include work to refit the tanks, which he insisted could be highly expensive.
Replacing the system that controls the gunfire could cost 350,000 euros per tank, replacing asbestos in the engine could cost 75,000 euros, he said. Each tank had to be assessed individually.
“We still have to look at what is their actual status and what we have to spend on them to make them suitable,” he said.
As part of his public offensive, Versluys has given journalists tours of his warehouse on the outskirts of the provincial town of Tournai. It resembles a military hypermarket, filled with lines of Leopard 1 tanks in dusty green and black camouflage and scores of other military vehicles, along with shelves stacked with spare parts and piles of webbing.
In his sales pitch, Versluys also emphasizes that refitted Leopard 1 tanks could be battlefield-ready in months, much more quickly than new models ordered today, which will take years to produce.
The Leopard 1 is the predecessor of the Leopard 2 tanks that Germany, Poland, Finland and other countries agreed last month to send to Ukraine. It is lighter than the Leopard 2 and has a different type of main gun. The models in Versluys’s warehouse were last upgraded in the 1990s.
Yohann Michel, an analyst at the International Institute for Strategic Studies think tank, said Leopard 1 tanks would not be as valuable on the battlefield as their successors.
But, he said, they could still be of some use in taking on older Russian tanks and in supporting infantry units, particularly if they were refitted to a high standard.
If Belgium does not buy back the tanks, another country could purchase them for Kyiv. Versluys said he had held discussions with several European governments about that option.
However, any export of Leopard 1s would require the approval from the Belgian region of Wallonia, where the company is based, and from Berlin, as the tanks were made by German firm KMW.
Versluys, who worked as an engineer in the Belgian military before going into business, is a smooth salesman.
While he does not like the “arms dealer” label, he said the weapons business is better than its reputation: “Contrary to what people say, it’s quite a civilized market.”
Ukrainian authorities raided an influential billionaire’s home on Wednesday in what an ally of President Volodymyr Zelenskyy touted as a sweeping wartime clampdown on corruption that would change the country.
Separate raids were carried out at the Tax Office and on the home of an influential former interior minister, two days before Kyiv hosts a summit with the European Union at which it wants to show it is cracking down after years of chronic corruption.
Ukraine sees Friday’s summit as key to its hopes of one day joining the bloc, a goal that has grown more urgent following Russia’s invasion and has embarked on a political shake-up in which more than a dozen officials quit or were sacked last week.
Security officials searched the home of businessman Ihor Kolomoiskiy, one of Ukraine’s richest men and a one-time Zelenskyy ally, in what several media outlets said was an investigation into possible financial crimes.
Kolomoiskiy could not immediately be reached for comment. He has previously denied any wrongdoing.
The Security Service of Ukraine (SBU) later said it had uncovered a scheme to embezzle more than $1 billion at oil producer Ukrnafta and oil refining company Ukrtatnafta, companies that Kolomoiskiy used to partly own.
Photographs circulating on social media appeared to show Kolomoiskiy, dressed in a sweatsuit, looking on in the presence of at least one SBU officer inside a large wooden home. Reuters could not immediately verify the authenticity of the images.
In a statement that did not name Kolomoiskiy, the SBU published the same photographs, but with the person’s face blurred out.
David Arakhamia, a senior member of Zelenskyy’s Servant of the People party, confirmed the search of Kolomoiskiy’s home as well as the separate raids conducted at the Tax Office and at the home of Arsen Avakov, a former interior minister.
Arakhamia said the entire management of the Customs Service was set to be dismissed and that high-ranking defense ministry officials had been served with notices informing them they were suspects in a case. He gave no details.
“The country will change during the war. If someone is not ready for change, then the state itself will come and help them change,” Arakhamia wrote on the Telegram messaging app.
In a statement, the Prosecutor General’s Office later said, “Corruption in a time of war is looting” and that four senior current and former officials had been served “notices of suspicion,” along with the senior management of Ukrtatnafta.
The head of the State Bureau of Investigation said the law enforcement action was “only the beginning.”
Ukraine’s long-running battle against corruption has taken on vital significance, as Russia’s invasion has made Kyiv heavily reliant on Western support and it needs to carry out reforms to join the 27-nation EU.
Domestic politics has largely been frozen as politicians focus on fighting Russia, but Zelenskyy presided over the first major political shakeup of the war last week after an outcry over a corruption scandal involving an army food contract.
Zelenskyy said on Tuesday that more personnel decisions were in the pipeline and promised reforms that would change Ukraine’s “social, legal and political reality.”
He was elected president in 2019 on an anti-corruption ticket and launched a crackdown on wealthy businessmen known as “oligarchs” in late 2021. The oligarchs took control of swathes of industry during the post-Soviet privatizations of the 1990s and continue to wield influence.
The Ukrainska Pravda media outlet said the search on Kolomoiskiy’s property related to an investigation into the alleged embezzlement of oil products and evasion of customs duties.
Separately, Avakov said his home was searched as part of an investigation into a helicopter crash on Jan. 18 that killed 14 people including Interior Minister Denys Monastyrskyi.
He said investigators were looking into the purchase six years ago of a model of Airbus helicopter that was involved in the crash, but that “nothing relevant to the interest of the investigation was found.”
The past year saw little progress in tackling global corruption due to greater violence and insecurity, according to the organization Transparency International’s “Corruption Perceptions Index 2022.” However, there are some encouraging signs that corruption is being successfully tackled in parts of Africa.
“Most of the world continues to fail to fight corruption: 95 percent of countries have made little to no progress since 2017,” the report says. “Governments hampered by corruption lack the capacity to protect the people, while public discontent is more likely to turn into violence. This vicious cycle is impacting countries everywhere from South Sudan to Brazil.”
For the sixth year running, South Sudan, Syria and Somalia are at the bottom of Transparency International’s Corruption Perception index.
“South Sudan is in a major humanitarian crisis with more than half of the population facing acute food insecurity — and corruption is exacerbating the situation,” the report reads. “A Sentry report from last year revealed that a massive fraud scheme by a network of corrupt politicians with ties to the president’s family siphoned off aid for food, fuel and medicine.”
Conflict and corruption create a vicious cycle, said Transparency International’s Roberto Kukutschka.
“Having weak and corrupt police and defense sectors — including … other law enforcement organizations or institutions such as the courts or the judiciary itself — it is very unlikely that we will be able to tackle organized crime or the effects of organized crime and terrorism,” Kukutschka told VOA.
The report says Russia’s invasion of Ukraine last February exemplifies the threat that corruption poses for global security.
“Kleptocrats in Russia have amassed great fortunes by pledging loyalty to President Vladimir Putin in exchange for profitable government contracts and protection of their economic interests,” the authors say. “The absence of any checks on Putin’s power allowed him to pursue his geopolitical ambitions with impunity. This attack destabilized the European continent, threatening democracy and killing tens of thousands.”
Transparency International says perceived corruption worsened in Brazil under former president Jair Bolsonaro. His supporters attacked the parliament, supreme court and presidential palace following his election loss in January.
“It is much easier for corruption to occur when these checks and balances are weaker,” said Kukutschka. “That’s why one of our main recommendations this year and also in the past has been to really focus on establishing very clear separation of powers across the judiciary, the legislature and the executive whenever we have those three branches of power.”
The index ranks 180 countries by the perceived level of corruption, using data from 13 external sources including the World Bank and the World Economic Forum.
Denmark, Finland and Norway top the index. “Strong democratic institutions and regard for human rights also make these countries some of the most peaceful in the world,” says the Berlin-based anti-corruption watchdog.
Several European countries are at historic lows, though, including Britain, which has slipped 10 places in the past five years following a series of political scandals. Qatar and Guatemala also have fallen to historic lows on the index.
Four other traditionally top-scoring countries — Australia, Austria, Canada and Luxembourg — saw a significant decline in their assessments, as VOA recently reported, while the U.S. scored 69, a “negligible” increase of 2 points, according to a Transparency International expert who called the rating “troubling.”
Some African nations have made significant progress and are rising on the index, including Angola, Ivory Coast, Ethiopia and Senegal.
“Seven of the 24 countries that we see improving are actually in Africa, so this is one of the regions that is stuck at the bottom of the index, but where we also see progress happening,” Kukutschka told VOA.
“Many of them have also ramped up their anti-corruption commitments. There’s been a lot of work also within the framework of the African Union to have to fight against corruption,” he added.
The past year saw little progress in tackling global corruption due to greater violence and insecurity, according to the organization Transparency International. Their annual index measures citizens’ perceptions of the level of corruption. As Henry Ridgwell reports, there are some encouraging signs that corruption is being successfully tackled in Africa. Videographer: Henry Ridgwell