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Top Russian military officials are being arrested on corruption charges as Putin begins fifth term

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Top Russian military officials are being arrested on corruption charges as Putin begins fifth term
  • Several Russian defense ministry personnel have been arrested on corruption charges over the last month.
  • Corruption in Russia functions as both a carrot and a stick. If the state has compromising information on key officials, it can cherry-pick whom to target, says Sam Greene, director of Democratic Resilience at the Center for European Policy Analysis.
  • The reason for the changes is unclear. Theories include that Putin is reasserting control over the Defense Ministry amid the war in Ukraine, and that a “turf battle” has broken out between the military and the security services.

It began last month with the arrest of a Russian deputy defense minister. Then the head of the ministry’s personnel directorate was hauled into court. This week, two more senior military officials were detained. All face charges of corruption, which they have denied.

The arrests started shortly before President Vladimir Putin began his fifth term and shuffled his ally, longtime Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, into a new post.

They immediately raised questions about whether Putin was reasserting control over the Defense Ministry amid the war in Ukraine, whether a turf battle had broken out between the military and the security services, or whether some other scenario was playing out behind the Kremlin’s walls.

PUTIN SIGNS DECREE NAMING NEW RUSSIAN GOVERNMENT, INCLUDING REPLACEMENT OF DEFENSE MINISTER

A look at what’s behind the arrests and why they are happening:

HOW SERIOUS IS CORRUPTION IN RUSSIA?

Corruption scandals are not new and officials and top officials have been accused of profiting from their positions for decades.

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Graft in Russia functions as both a carrot and a stick. It’s a way of “encouraging loyalty and urging people to be on the same page,” as well as a method of control, said Sam Greene, director of Democratic Resilience at the Center for European Policy Analysis.

Maj. Gen. Ivan Popov, the commander of Russia’s 58th Army, is seen in a photo at an undisclosed location. Popov was arrested on bribery charges after he was suspended in July 2023 for criticizing the Defense Ministry leadership. (Russian Defense Ministry Press Service via AP, File)

Putin wants everyone to have “a skeleton in their closet,” security expert Mark Galeotti said on a recent podcast. If the state has compromising material on key officials, it can cherry-pick whom to target, he added.

Corruption, “is the essence of the system,” said Nigel Gould-Davies a senior fellow at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London.

The war in Ukraine has led to ballooning defense spending that only has increased opportunities for graft.

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WHO WAS ARRESTED?

Former Deputy Defense Minister Timur Ivanov — the first official arrested in April and the highest-ranking one so far — oversaw large military-related construction projects and had access to vast sums of money. Those projects included rebuilding parts of Ukraine’s destroyed port city of Mariupol.

The team headed by the late opposition leader Alexei Navalny alleged that Ivanov, 48, and his family owned elite real estate, enjoyed lavish parties and trips abroad, even after the war began. They also alleged that Ivanov’s wife, Svetlana, divorced him in 2022 to avoid sanctions and to continue living a luxurious lifestyle.

Putin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Thursday the recent arrests are not a “campaign” against corruption but rather reflect ongoing activities in “all government bodies.”

Peskov and Ivanov were once part of an embarrassing episode caught on camera. Navalny’s team has shared 2022 images of the Kremlin spokesman celebrating at a birthday party for Ivanov’s former wife. In the video, Peskov, with Ivanov at his side, is seen wearing a watch estimated to cost $85,000.

In April, the Investigative Committee, Russia’s top law enforcement agency, reported that Ivanov is suspected of taking an especially large bribe — a criminal offense punishable by up to 15 years in prison.

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Since then, other arrests on bribery charges have included Lt. Gen. Yury Kuznetsov, head of the Defense Ministry’s personnel directorate; Maj. Gen. Ivan Popov, a career soldier and former top commander in Ukraine; and Lt. Gen. Vadim Shamarin, deputy chief of the military general staff. Shamarin is a deputy to Valery Gerasimov, the chief of the general staff.

A fifth ministry official was reported arrested Thursday — Vladimir Verteletsky, who headed a division in the ministry’s defense procurement department. He was charged with abuse of office that resulted in damages worth over $776,000, the Investigative Committee said.

Also, the deputy head of the federal prison service for the Moscow region, Vladimir Telayev, was arrested Thursday on charges of large-scale bribery, Russian reports said.

WHY IS THIS HAPPENING NOW?

The arrests suggest that “really egregious” corruption in the Defense Ministry will no longer be tolerated, said Richard Connolly, a specialist on the Russian economy at the Royal United Services Institute in London.

Shortly after his inauguration, Putin replaced Shoigu as defense minister with Andrei Belousov, an economist. Peskov said Russia’s increasing defense budget must fit into the country’s wider economy.

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Peskov said Russia’s defense budget is 6.7% of gross domestic product. That is a level not seen since the Soviet era.

“There is a view that this needs to be spent more wisely,” Connolly said.

Before his death in a still-mysterious plane crash last year, mercenary chief Yevgeny Prigozhin led a brief rebellion against the country’s military leadership, saying it mismanaged the war and denied weapons and ammunition to his forces.

Belousov’s appointment is “a grudging recognition from the Kremlin” that it has to pay attention to these problems, said Gould-Davies.

It’s also critical the war is managed correctly because Russia’s economy depends on it. Russians are earning higher salaries driven by the booming defense sector. While that has created problems with inflation, it allows Putin to keep delivering on promises to raise living standards.

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Greene said the government needs to “keep the war going in order to keep the economy going,” but also must ensure the costs — and corruption — are not higher than needed.

Connolly said it’s also possible that Belousov, the new defense minister, is clearing out his predecessor’s associates and sending the message that “things are going to be done differently.”

Other changes include Deputy Defense Minister Yuri Sadovenko, who was replaced by Oleg Saveliev, a former aide to Belousov, and Rossiyana Markovskaya, a former Shoigu spokesperson who said she was quitting to take a new job.

Popov’s case may be different. He fought in Ukraine and was suspended in July 2023 for criticizing the Defense Ministry leadership — like Prigozhin did — and blaming it for a lack of weapons and poor supply lines that led to many Russian casualties.

He now may be facing the consequences for that criticism.

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COULD THIS BE A TURF BATTLE?

It is unclear whether the Kremlin or Russia’s security services, particularly the State Security Service, or FSB, are the driving force behind the arrests.

It’s possible that officials sufficiently distant from Putin could have been caught in the middle of a turf war unconnected to the appointment of the new defense minister.

The security services, Greene said, could be trying to “push back” against the military’s dominance seen since Putin ordered the invasion of Ukraine in 2022.

While the Kremlin denies that any kind of a purge was taking place, “if Putin didn’t want it to happen, it wouldn’t be happening,” Greene said.

WHAT WILL HAPPEN NEXT?

More arrests are likely as the new defense minister wants to show “there is a price to be paid” for corruption in order to rein it in, Connolly said.

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Greene added that it’s also possible that “entrepreneurial” investigators will think launching a criminal case against a general is a great opportunity for career advancement.

Because corruption is so endemic, however, it could cause panic in the whole system.

If officials are arrested for behavior that previously was allowed even though it was illegal, it could shift the “red lines,” Greene said.

If the arrests continue or widen beyond the Defense Ministry, it could cause finger-pointing and for officials to “rush for the exits,” he said, and that is something the Kremlin wants to avoid.

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Because the system is built on corruption, Greene said, attacking it too hard could cause it to “fall apart.”

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Russia says US journalist Evan Gershkovich to face trial for ‘CIA work’

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Russia says US journalist Evan Gershkovich to face trial for ‘CIA work’

Wall Street Journal rejects ‘false and baseless’ charge against 32-year-old reporter who has been in custody since March 2023.

Russian prosecutors have said US journalist Evan Gershkovich will face trial in the Ural city of Yekaterinburg, where he was detained more than a year ago after he was accused of working for the CIA.

Gershkovich, 32, is accused of “gathering secret information” on orders from the CIA about Uralvagonzavod, a facility that produces and repairs military equipment, the prosecutor general’s office said in a statement, revealing for the first time the details of the accusations against him. The statement gave no date for the trial.

Gershkovich, a journalist with the Wall Street Journal, has been in jail since he was arrested in Yekaterinburg, about 1,400 kilometres (870 miles) east of Moscow, on March 29, 2023, and was accused of spying. He denies any wrongdoing.

Following the Russian announcement, the Journal said that Gershkovich was facing “a false and baseless charge”. A joint statement from Almar Latour, the newspaper’s publisher, and its editor-in-chief, Emma Tucker, demanded Gershkovich’s immediate release.

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“Russia’s latest move toward a sham trial is, while expected, deeply disappointing and still no less outrageous,” the statement said.

“Evan has spent 441 days wrongfully detained in a Russian prison for simply doing his job. Evan is a journalist. The Russian regime’s smearing of Evan is repugnant, disgusting and based on calculated and transparent lies.”

Gershkovich at his appearance in a Moscow court on April 23 [Alexander Zemlianichenko/AP Photo]

The United States designated Gershkovich “wrongfully detained” in April 2023, and President Joe Biden has called his detention “totally illegal”.

Latour and Tucker said they now expected the US government to step up efforts to secure his release.

US State Department spokesman Matthew Miller said Washington would continue to work to bring Gershkovich home.

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“Evan has done nothing wrong. He should never have been arrested in the first place. Journalism is not a crime,” Miller said. “The charges against him are false. And the Russian government knows that they’re false. He should be released immediately.”

Potential prisoner swap

Gershkovich was the first US journalist to be arrested on spying charges in Russia since the Cold War, as Moscow enacted increasingly repressive laws on freedom of speech after sending troops into Ukraine. Washington has sought to negotiate his release, but Russia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said Moscow would consider a prisoner swap only after a verdict in his trial.

Asked last week by The Associated Press news agency about Gershkovich, Russian President Vladimir Putin said the US was “taking energetic steps” to secure the journalist’s release. He told international news agencies in a rare news conference that any such releases “aren’t decided via mass media” but through a “discreet, calm and professional approach”.

“And they certainly should be decided only on the basis of reciprocity,” he added, alluding to a potential prisoner swap.

Gershkovich faces up to 20 years in prison if convicted.

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The Uralvagonzavod factory, about 100km (60 miles) north of Yekaterinburg, has been sanctioned by Western countries. Based in the city of Nizhny Tagil in the Sverdlovsk region, it plays a crucial role in supplying tanks for Moscow’s war in Ukraine, according to the Russian Ministry of Defence.

The factory, which is run by a state conglomerate controlled by one of Putin’s allies, has publicly spoken of producing T-90M battle tanks and modernising T-72B3M tanks.

The number of tanks which Russia has lost in battle in Ukraine is a military secret in Russia, which says it has ramped up tank production.

The London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies think tank said in February that Russia had lost more than 3,000 tanks – the equivalent of its entire pre-war active inventory – but had enough lower-quality armoured vehicles in storage for years of replacements.

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Video: Biden and Zelensky Deliver Remarks at G7 Summit

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Video: Biden and Zelensky Deliver Remarks at G7 Summit

new video loaded: Biden and Zelensky Deliver Remarks at G7 Summit

transcript

transcript

Biden and Zelensky Deliver Remarks at G7 Summit

G7 leaders agreed on a plan to give Ukraine a $50 billion loan to help it buy weapons and begin to rebuild.

“President Zelensky and I have just now signed that agreement between the United States and Ukraine. Our goal is to strengthen Ukraine’s credible defense and deterrence capabilities for the long term. A lasting peace for Ukraine must be underwritten by Ukraine’s own ability to defend itself now, and to deter future aggression any time in the future. The United States is going to help ensure that Ukraine can do both, not by sending American troops to fight in Ukraine, but by providing weapons and ammunition, expanding intelligence sharing, continuing to train brave Ukrainian troops at bases in Europe and the United States.” “Today is a truly historic day, and we have signed the strongest agreement between Ukraine and the U.S. since our independence. And this is an agreement on security, and thus, on the protection of human life. This is an agreement on cooperation, and thus, on how our nations will become stronger. This is an agreement on steps to guarantee sustainable peace, and therefore it benefits everyone in the world because the Russian war against Ukraine is a real, real global threat.”

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1,000 days have passed since Taliban banned girls from attending school past 6th grade: UNICEF

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1,000 days have passed since Taliban banned girls from attending school past 6th grade: UNICEF

A thousand days have passed since girls in Afghanistan were banned from attending secondary schools, according to the U.N. children’s agency, which said Thursday that “no country can move forward when half its population is left behind.”

UNICEF Executive Director Catherine Russell in a statement urged Taliban authorities to allow all children to resume learning immediately, and called on the international community to support Afghan girls, who she said need it more than ever. The agency estimates that more than 1 million girls are affected.

The U.N. has warned that the ban on girls’ education remains the Taliban’s biggest obstacle to gaining recognition as the legitimate rulers of Afghanistan.

TALIBAN PUBLICLY FLOGS 63 IN AFGHANISTAN, INCLUDING WOMEN, DRAWING UN CONDEMNATION

The Taliban, who took over in Afghanistan following the withdrawal of U.S. and NATO forces in 2021, has said girls continuing their education goes against the group’s strict interpretation of Islamic law.

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Despite initially promising a more moderate rule, the Taliban have also barred women from higher education, public spaces like parks and most jobs as part of harsh measures imposed. When the Taliban ruled Afghanistan in the 1990s, they also banned girls’ education.

FILE – Afghan girls attend school in a classroom, in Kabul, March 25, 2023. One thousand days have passed since girls in Afghanistan were banned from attending secondary schools. That’s according to the U.N. children’s agency, which says that “no country can move forward when half its population is left behind.” (AP Photo/Ebrahim Noroozi, File)

The Taliban has barred girls from attending classes beyond sixth grade, making it the only country in the world with such restrictions on female education.

In March, the new school year started with girls barred from attending classes beyond the sixth grade. Female journalists were not allowed to attend the opening ceremony.

The Taliban also have been prioritizing Islamic knowledge over basic literacy and numeracy with their shift toward madrassas, or religious schools.

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UNICEF’s executive director called the systematic exclusion of girls “not only a blatant violation of their right to education, but also results in dwindling opportunities and deteriorating mental health.”

She said UNICEF works with partners to run community-based education classes for 600,000 children, two-thirds of them girls, and train teachers.

Although Afghan boys have access to education, Human Rights Watch has said the Taliban’s “abusive” educational policies are harming them. In a report published in December, the group said deep harm has been inflicted on boys’ education as qualified teachers — including women — left, including an increase in corporal punishment.

Also on Thursday, a spokesperson for the U.N. Human Rights Office said the Taliban have told female civil servants barred from working that their salaries would be cut to the lowest level regardless of their experience or qualifications.

The latest “discriminatory and profoundly arbitrary decision” further deepened the erosion of human rights in Afghanistan, said Liz Throssell.

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The U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, Volker Türk, called on authorities to rescind all laws, instructions, edicts and other measures that discriminated against women and girls, in clear violation of the country’s human rights obligations, Throssell added.

Nobody from the Taliban was immediately available for comment.

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