Escalation in Ukraine
Hello! This week our top story is Russia’s retaliatory missile strikes on Ukrainian cities after an attack on the Crimean Bridge. We also look at how one of the biggest Russo-Chinese joint enterprises, Aliexpress Russia, is on the verge of collapse, Russia’s second Nobel Peace Prize in two years, and mounting evidence that Russia is unable to properly equip, house or feed tens of thousands of mobilized men.
Military escalation in Ukraine war
The start of October has seen a significant escalation in the war in Ukraine, with an attack on the Crimean bridge, connecting the annexed Crimea with mainland Russia, and a wave of missile strikes on Ukrainian cities not seen since the beginning of the invasion.
The 19 kilometer-long Crimea Bridge is one of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s grand symbolic projects — he personally opened it in 2018.
- The attack was carefully timed. A truck laden with explosives was detonated on the road bridge just as a fuel train was crossing the adjacent railway. As a result, three spans of the road bridge collapsed. It is estimated that repairs will take several months. Traffic was partially restored Saturday, but the Russian authorities were forced to revert to maritime cargo services for trucks and passenger buses.
- Officially, Russia has said there were five victims: the driver of the truck that exploded and four individuals who happened to be on the bridge at the time.
- As in similar incidents, Ukraine did not officially acknowledge any role in the explosion. However, sources told The Washington Post and two Ukrainian publications (1, 2) that Ukraine’s secret services were responsible. According to a semi-official account circulated by sources in Russian law enforcement agencies, the driver of the truck was hired ‘blind’ and believed he was carrying an ordinary load. It is impossible to confirm the accuracy of this account.
The Russian authorities have repeatedly insisted that attacks on the Crimean Bridge would be a “red line.” Former president Dmitry Medvedev even threatened to unleash ‘doomsday’ on Ukraine. Back in spring, after Ukraine’s first shelling of border areas, the Defense Ministry threatened Kyiv with “strikes on decision-making centers,” although no such attacks were forthcoming. The radical pro-war lobby has long criticized the Russian government for not making good on these threat.
That criticism intensified following the attack on the bridge. Influential pro-war Telegram channel Rybar advised the Kremlin “at least to refrain from making loud noises about ‘decision-making centers’ this time: for a long time, this has done more harm than good.” Igor Strelkov, a former FSB officer and rebel commander in Ukraine, compiled a sarcastic list of 15 reasons why the Kremlin believes the attack on the bridge is nothing to worry about. One pro-war blogger even reworked a famous revolutionary song, ‘Varshavnyak’ with the lines ‘Hit the decision-making centers! You promised, you gave us your word!’.
It is not easy to assess how much Russia’s “patriots” influenced the authorities, but the Russian army launched intense missile strikes on Ukrainian cities Monday morning.
- In total, 83 cruise missiles were fired at Ukrainian cities. Ukraine’s defenses shot down 43. At least 16 major cities were hit, including some in Western Ukraine.
- For the first time since the spring, Kyiv was hit by missiles. At least four hit civilian targets: a square in the city center, a busy intersection, a footbridge in a downtown park and a business center. Russia’s Defense Ministry made its traditional claim that the strikes only hit military and infrastructure targets.
- The latest figures suggest that 11 people were killed in the morning strikes, with a further 87 injured.
- The main targets were infrastructure, particularly power plants. There are confirmed reports of explosions at power stations in Kyiv and Lviv, while the energy networks for Ukraine’s railway have likely been damaged. The country’s authorities are urging people to save electricity, asking citizens not to turn on the lights this evening and minimize the use of electrical appliances to ease the load on a weakened power grid.
Putin described the morning strikes as a response to the attack on the bridge. He warned of further raids “if we see further attempts to carry out terrorist attacks on our territory.” Medvedev, who was silent for two days after the attack on the bridge, described the strikes as “episode one” and promised more.
So-called patriots were celebrating after Moscow finally struck “decision-making centers.” Anton Krasovsky, head of the Russian-language output at state-funded media outlet RT, posted a video after the raids in which he danced on his balcony in his pajamas with the symbol ‘Z’. However, blogger Rybar warned that the effect of one-off missile attacks can only be maintained if these strikes become regular and systematic.
Aliexpress Russia shareholders refuse to finance company
Before the war, Aliexpress Russia — the biggest Russo-Chinese joint enterprise — was poised to become the “Russian Amazon.” But it appears that the conflict has persuaded China’s Alibaba that its international reputation is worth more than the Russian market. As The Bell reported, the Chinese company has decided to curtail its investments in Russia.
- In the early days of the war, Alibaba told its partners that it would no longer put money into developing the Aliexpress Russia project, said three sources in the Russian e-commerce sector. Prior to the war there was no hint of a problem, according to them — on the contrary, the shareholders (Alibaba with 47.85%, billionaire Alisher Ushmanov’s USM with 24%, tech company VK with 15% and Russia’s state investment fund with 12.8%) — had ambitious plans.
- “Alibaba is a publicly listed company trading on the New York Stock Exchange, it has many ties to American markets and institutions,” one source told The Bell. “Nobody is going to kill that for a Russian project. Especially given the uncertain prospects for growth in this market due to the war and sanctions.” The source added that Alibaba’s refusal to invest was a trigger for the other shareholders.
- Since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Aliexpress Russia has shed 700 employees, more than half its pre-war staff, another source told The Bell. The joint venture also curtailed its biggest logistics projects, and almost completely stopped its advertising and marketing work. Notably, the face of that advertising campaign, comedian Maxim Galkin, is also in disgrace. In September, Russia’s Ministry of Justice added Galkin to its list of individuals designated as “foreign agents.”
Why the world should care
It’s become increasingly clear that Chinese are not prepared to risk falling foul of sanctions in order to preserve ties with Russia. But this joint venture is a particularly significant casualty: the documents to establish it were signed during a summit between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese leader Xi Jinping.
Russian Nobel Peace Prize Win for Second Consecutive Year
The Nobel committee announced Friday the winner of its annual Peace Prize. This year, the honor was shared by three human rights activists: Belarusian activist Ales Belyatsky (currently in pre-trial detention), Ukraine’s Center for Civil Liberties and Russia’s Memorial.
- Memorial is Russia’s oldest NGO. It researches political repression in the Soviet Union and Russia (under the slightly different name of International Memorial) and also campaigns for human rights (as the Memorial Human Rights Center). Among other things, it works closely with the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) where, prior to September 2022, many Russians were pursuing cases in the hope of bringing the authorities to justice for abuses including torture and unlawful detention.
- Memorial was founded in 1987 by Soviet activists who wanted to preserve the memory of victims of political repression. Thanks to its efforts, the Solovetsky Stone — a monument to the hundreds of thousands executed or imprisoned during the Soviet Union — was installed in central Moscow in 1990, right in front of the KGB headquarters (today the headquarters of the FSB). The granite block was brought from the Solovetsky prison camp, which writer Alexander Solzhenitsyn described as a “Polar Auschwitz.” The first head of Memorial was Andrei Sakharov, an eminent physicist and another Nobel Peace Prize laureate.
- Memorial’s members have often faced intimidation in the course of their work. And emploa few have have even been murdered: in 2009, human rights activist and Novaya Gazeta journalist Natalia Estimirova was kidnapped and her body found in neighboring Ingushetia. The murderers were never identified. Twelve years later, the ECHR found that the Russian authorities failed to effectively investigate the murder — although stopped short of saying the authorities were involved in the murder.
- In the 2010s, Memorial fell out of favor. Memorial International and Memorial’s human rights center were among the first organizations in Russia to be listed as “foreign agents” (in 2014 and 2016 respectively). In 2015, the Supreme Court dismissed a Ministry of Justice attempt to liquidate the Memorial. But, in late 2020, the center again came to the attention of Moscow prosecutors. Within a year, Memorial was liquidated under the pretext that not all of its publications stated that the organization was registered as a foreign agent.
- This is the second year running that the Nobel Peace Prize has gone, at least in part, to somebody in Russia. In 2021, the award was shared by journalist Maria Ressa and Dmitry Muratov, editor of Novaya Gazeta. Although this was Russia’s first Nobel Prize for 18 years (if we leave aside the 2010 prize for Physics awarded to Russian-born Konstantin Novoselov after his work in the Netherlands with Andrei Geim), not everybody welcomed the award.
- Aside from some Kremlin propagandists, the loudest complaints came from supporters of jailed opposition figure Alexei Navalny. They argued that Navalny himself deserved the prize more than Muratov, who they accused of collaborating with the authorities. This year’s award to Memorial was widely criticized in Ukraine. Mykhailo Podolyak, an advisor to the President of Ukraine, tweeted that during the war in Ukraine, neither Russians nor Belarusians managed to organize effective opposition to the military campaign.
- On the same day that Memorial received its Nobel Prize, a court in Moscow ordered the confiscation of the organization’s property in the city center, including its archives. Until now, people have been able to visit these archives to seek information about the fate of their relatives during the repressions of the Soviet era.
Why the world should care
The award is unlikely to offer any protection to Memorial, or aid it in its ongoing fight to be allowed to continue its work. Despite Muratov’s peace prize last year, Novaya Gazeta was shut down shortly after the beginning of the war and lost its media license last month.
Russia spends billions on defense, yet conscripts often have no food
Dozens of videos have surfaced in recent weeks of Russian conscripts living in squalid conditions, being issued with old equipment and being encouraged to buy their own body armor and medical supplies.
- For example, the relatives of one young man from the industrial city of Chelyabinsk who was called up spent 40,000 rubles ($641) to buy thermal underwear, balaclavas, a push-button telephone and other bits of kit. And, in Novosibirsk, a conscript and his girlfriend spent 130,000 rubles ($2,085) on equipment. In several cases, conscripts were asked to buy their own body armor. As demand soars, prices of military equipment and medication have increased up to 40%.
- From recruitment offices, new recruits go to training centers. These are often overcrowded to the point that there are not enough beds to go round. Sometimes, they are not fed for several days and are billeted in buildings with no heating or sanitation. In one notorious case, rusty machine guns were handed out for a training exercise in the Far East (Russian propagandists responded with calls to find the culprits and punish “saboteurs”).
- A few days ago, footage appeared on social media of conscripts complaining about the conditions they were kept in before their deployment to Ukraine. One clip shows men in military uniforms standing in front of a passenger train. “We spent a week in appalling conditions. Like animals. No material assistance, no cash allowance. Nothing!” one man shouts. It is unclear whether this footage is real or fake: the video shows a man wearing a uniform with a chevron from mercenary outfit Wagner Group. Yevgeny Prigozhin, the owner of Wagner, has repeatedly criticized the Defense Ministry in recent weeks as Russia’s troops suffer defeats in Eastern Ukraine.
- Despite reports of mobilized men buying their own equipment, the Defense Ministry insists that all the essentials will be provided and has no plans to reimburse men who have spent money on uniforms, medicines and other equipment.
Why the world should care
The problems plaguing Russia’s mobilization are even more eye opening given the country’s defense budget. Over the last eight years, defense spending has ranged from 14% to 23% of total expenditure. On average, that’s twice what’s spent on healthcare and education combined. In absolute terms, defense spending has now ballooned to $18 billion.