Heightened false-flag fears

The Bell

Russian statements raise fears of catastrophic false-flag attacks

Over the past week, tensions have escalated over the possibility of a Russian retreat from southern Ukraine. The pro-Moscow authorities of Kherson announced a mass evacuation of civilians to the opposite side of the Dnipro, and tens of thousands of people have already been moved. At the same time, the Russian military accused Ukraine of plotting war crimes: destroying a hydroelectric dam that would flood Kherson and 80 other cities, or detonating a “dirty bomb” on its own territory. This has given rise to fears that Russia might be planning false-flag operations of its own.

Kherson evacuation and General Surovikin’s hints

Starting last week, the Kherson region’s pro-Russian administration has been calling on civilians to evacuate, with their calls growing louder and more insistent with each passing day.

The head of the administration on Oct. 13 asked the Russian authorities to help prepare for the voluntary departure of Kherson’s civilians to Russia. Moscow promised free housing and social support to those who leave.

Days later on Oct. 18, it was announced that a decision had been taken to evacuation the residents of four frontline districts to the left bank of the Dnipro River, which is still firmly under Russian military control. The next day, the pro-Russian administration itself said its officials were evacuating across the river.

By the end of the week, a note of panic was creeping in. “All civilians must immediately leave the city and cross to the left bank of the Dnipro,” the Kherson administration said in a statement Saturday.

Kherson’s pro-Russian administration said it ordered the evacuation due to an incoming Ukrainian counteroffensive, which would inevitably claim civilian casualties. But that’s not all.

On Oct. 18, Russian state television broadcast the first interview with General Sergei Surovikin since he was put in charge of Russia’s forces in Ukraine. This was a noteworthy occasion, not least because it is the first time a senior military official involved in the “special military operation” has spoken to the public. Surovikin said that the situation in Kherson was “very difficult” and admitted that the Russian military faced “difficult decisions” ahead. Russian propagandists unanimously concluded that these words were referring to a possible retreat from Kherson.

Perhaps the key message of Surovikin’s interview was his direct accusation that Ukraine intended to destroy the dam at the Kakhovka Hydroelectric Power Plant on the “Russian” side of the Dnipro. Russian officials repeated this claim in subsequent days, going as high up the country’s representative to the UN. In response, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said that the dam, which has been under Russian control since the first days of the war, was mined by the Russian army and they were the ones who could blow it up.

What happens if the dam breaks?

Built in 1965, the Kakhovka Hydroelectric Power Plant is one of Ukraine’s biggest power plants and its dam encloses about 18 million cubic meters of water. Lying about 60 kilometers from Kherson on the opposite bank of the Dnipro, the plant provides water and electricity to southern Ukraine and its reservoirs help to cool the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant. In addition, it supplies water to Russian-annexed Crimea. Ukraine cut off water to Crimea after Russia annexed the peninsula in 2014, but Moscow’s forces were able to turn the taps back on in March after capturing Kakhovka.

According to analysts at Washington’s Institute for the Study of War, it is more likely that Russia would attack the power plant and then blame it on Ukraine. An attack of this sort would divert attention away from Russia’s retreat from the Kherson region. It would also unleash catastrophic flooding, preventing Ukraine from carrying out its offensive across the Dnipro.

From a technical standpoint, it would be much easier for the Russians to blow up the dam while it is under their control. Ukraine would have to rely on missile strikes. The reservoir is made up of three elements: the dam, the power plant and additional locks. Ukrainian experts believe that only the latter two are vulnerable to missile attacks.

The dam itself is very strong and can only be destroyed by setting up explosives “according to a certain scheme,” said Vladislav Seleznev, former speaker of the General Staff of the Ukrainian Armed Forces. Ukrainian officials say that it would be impossible to destroy the dam using the U.S.-supplied HIMARS rocket system, pointing to footage of the damage done to the Antonivskyi Bridge in Kherson city. There, missile strikes had damaged the roadway enough to halt traffic, but the bridge’s structure survived almost intact.

Both sides have warned that blowing up the dam would spark an ecological and humanitarian catastrophe. Zelensky said that if Russian forces blow up the dam, about 80 towns and cities, including Kherson itself, would succumb to rapid flooding. Russia’s representative to the UN said that thousands of civilians would be killed in the event of an explosion at the dam.

Some Ukrainian analysts think that this is an exaggeration. If the power station and locks are destroyed, water will flow downriver for a long time. This will cause greater damage on the Russian-occupied left bank of the Dnipro, but there would not be significant flooding, suggested hydrogeologist Ruslan Gavrilyuk, head of the council of Ukraine’s National Ecological Center. In the event of an explosion, water levels might rise by one or two meters in Kherson and beyond, which he says could hardly be called a disaster.

The “dirty bomb”

For most of the week, attention focused on the threat of an explosion at the Kakhovka power plant. But a new threat emerged on Sunday, as Russia unexpectedly started spreading “information”’ that Ukraine planned to detonate a “dirty bomb” on its own territory. This story originated from a murky article published by state media agency RIA Novosti and quickly spread to the highest official levels. On Sunday, Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu called his counterparts in the U.S., Britain, France and Turkey to warn them of the “bomb” threat.

The first claims of a “dirty bomb” appeared on the RIA Novosti’s website and Telegram channel at 8 a.m. on Sunday. Citing “trustworthy sources in several countries, including Ukraine,” it alleged that Kyiv was “preparing to carry out a provocation on the territory of its country, connected to the detonation of a ‘dirty bomb’ or low-yield nuclear weapon.” The aim was to implicate Russia in the use of weapons of mass destruction and “unleash a powerful anti-Russian campaign in the world.”

According to RIA’s sources, the bomb is to be constructed by the leadership of the Eastern GOK in the Dnipropetrovsk region (Ukraine’s only organization for extracting and processing uranium) and Kyiv’s Institute of Nuclear Research. At the same time, the Ukrainian presidential office is allegedly “carrying out covert contacts” with British representatives to acquire components for a nuclear weapon. This work is already in its final stages, RIA wrote.

A “dirty bomb” usually refers to a primitive radiological weapon, typically a container carrying radioactive isotopes which is detonated using ordinary explosives. This can spread radioactive material across a wide area. Unlike Russia’s tactical nuclear weapons, which are almost certainly under close Western military surveillance, a “dirty bomb” filled with atomic waste can be constructed and transported without attracting attention.

That afternoon, reports of Ukraine’s alleged “nuclear provocation” appeared in Defense Ministry press releases about Sergei Shoigu’s telephone conversations. First, the ministry reported that Shoigu “shared information about a possible provocation from the Ukrainian side using a ‘dirty bomb’” in a phone call with the French defense minister. Shoigu had a similar phone with his Turkish counterpart immediately afterwards. Next was the British defense minister.

Finally, in the evening, Shoigu spoke with Pentagon chief Lloyd Austin. Their reported conversation is the only one without any mention of a “dirty bomb.” Even so, the conversation alone is a worrying sign. Shoigu and Austin had not been in contact since the spring, and now they have spoken twice in the past three days (they previously spoke on Friday, Oct. 21). Russia has previously speculated on the possibility of a Ukrainian “dirty bomb” at the start of the war in late February. At that time, Russian media wrote that Ukraine was preparing to build and detonate such a weapon. This was one of the arguments for the Russian forces’ capture of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant.

Russia officially moves to a war economy

Despite statements in Moscow and promises from President Vladimir Putin that mobilization will end soon, it will keep going for a long time. This week, Putin declared martial law in the occupied regions of Ukraine and placed Russia’s regions on heightened alert. This gives the authorities in those regions extensive rights to limit citizens’ rights and mobilize the economy. Unsurprisingly, the thousands of Russians who left the country after mobilization was declared on Sept. 21 are not rushing to return.

At the start of the week, Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin announced the end of mobilization in the Russian capital. Moscow region Governor Andrei Borobyov followed suit, and the leaders of dozens of Russian regions have made similar statements. However, lawyers say that these proclamations offer no guarantee that mobilization is actually over. The mobilization that Putin announced can only be halted by the president himself. But when exactly that will be formally written into law remains unknown. Sources from the independent Meduza news website linked the abrupt end to mobilization in Moscow and the Moscow region with public dissatisfaction toward the authorities’ behavior.

However, calming the population in Russia’s big cities is clearly not the main task. Within just two days of the announcements that mobilization was over for Moscow and its surrounding region, Putin imposed martial law in the occupied territories of Ukraine that Russia says it has annexed. All other Russian regions are under various “response regimes.” In regions bordering the occupied territories, this is the “medium level.” In Russia’s Central Federal District, which includes Moscow, a “high-alert regime” is in force. The rest of the country is at the “basic” level, but they are also under an increased readiness.

What do these regimes mean?

The authorities in the regions bordering Ukraine now have the right to restrict entry and exit from their territories and limit movement within them. They can temporarily relocate residents to safer areas and have “the authority to lead mobilization measures in the economic sphere.” The authorities in central Russia have similar powers, but without economic mobilization or restrictions on movement. In every region, without exception, governors are setting up operational headquarters with the backing of the security agencies. This can make binding decisions on behalf of the regional executive. Separately, Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin’s government formed a coordination center that will be responsible for quickly boosting military production and improving supplies to the Armed Forces, both of which can require businesses’ support.

Nominally, Putin’s orders on creating new bodies and alert regimes changes little. Martial law has effectively been in place for some time in the occupied territories. In Russia’s regions, local leaders already govern with an eye on security factors beyond their control. Right now, nobody is going to try to exercise the new powers provided by the “special regimes.” However, this order makes it theoretically possible to impose the most severe regimes in any or all Russian regions. Additionally, Putin’s decisions send a clear signal throughout the power vertical that the country’s governance is being put on a military footing.

Against this backdrop, there is no sign that the thousands of people who left Russia are hurrying home: there are almost no signs of packed flights into Moscow from abroad, and no sign of increased bookings for passengers with pets (many of those who left Russia took their animals with them, causing a surge of bookings after the start of the war in February and again when mobilization was announced in September).

Those who left automatically ceased to be consumers in the Russian economy. A significant majority also left the workforce. The first weeks of this new wave of emigration showed that remote working would not be an option for many, even if they had been able to work from home during the pandemic. For example, state banks have delivered an ultimatum to their staff that they must either return to Russia or quit their jobs: working remotely from abroad is expressly prohibited in their contracts, The Bell learned this week.

This emigration leads to a shortage of personnel, which in turn threatens to reduce GDP. According to economist Vladimir Gimpelson, mobilizing just 300,000 people represents a loss of about 0.5% of the entire workforce. Based on the conditional assumption that all employees make a roughly equal contribution to GDP, that could represent about 0.5% of Russia’s GDP. Emigration could significantly increase that figure.

Additionally, in the month after the mobilization announcement, Russians almost met a 14-year-old record for bank withdrawals. From Sep. 21 to Oct. 20, withdrawals totaled 959 billion rubles (in February 2022 it was 1.2 trillion). This makes a new rate hike more likely, which would also impact the pace of economic growth.

Why the world should care

It has been a long time since anybody doubted that the war, and the wartime economy, are here to stay. Now the Kremlin is beginning to make it official. During the winter, we expect to see how this ‘military footing’ will change the direction of the economy as the state begins intense preparations for the next stage of its war.

Russian deputies want expand the law on “gay propaganda” — and increase discrimination against LGBT people

In Russia, which already condemned by human rights activists for its anti-LGBT policies, tough new laws for promoting “non-traditional” relationships are on the way. Previously, “gay propaganda” had to be kept away from children and teenagers; now, legislators intend to apply the restrictions to content aimed at all ages. LGBT activists fear that the new law will bring a new round of censorship and a potential increase in homophobic violence.

Two bills were recently submitted to Russia’s lower house of parliament and are due for their first reading on Oct. 25. It’s likely that both will be adopted next month – 390 out of 450 State Duma deputies are listed as co-authors of the bills. The initiatives propose fines for “LGBT propaganda” that targets all Russians — not just minors, as current law forbids. Fines will increase: 400,000 rubles ($6,488) for individuals, 800,000 ($13,000) for officials and up to 5 million rubles ($81,000) for organizations.

Moreover, the new laws would impose fines for so-called “pedophile propaganda” alongside existing fines for “gay propaganda.” There are also fines for “promoting gender realignment” among teenagers. Foreigners convicted under these laws face expulsion from the country.

The new bills also distinguish between “demonstrations” and “propaganda.” For example, according to Alexander Khinshteyn, head of the State Duma’s Information Policy Committee and the bills’ initiator, Vladimir Nabokov’s notorious novel “Lolita” — about the relationship between an adult man and a teenage girl — does not qualify as propaganda.

“None of the book’s readers would want to repeat the tragic fate of Humbert or Lolita herself,” he said. However, if a work depicts “non-traditional” relationships from an attractive or sympathetic viewpoint, this becomes propaganda. Khinshteyn did not explain exactly how to draw this particular line.

Deputies also want to restrict access to “gay propaganda” content in online cinemas. Services will need to introduce passcodes for adult customers as an additional measure to protect minors. Online cinema companies said they have no idea what more is expected from them, since most services already have active controls to prevent minors from viewing 18+ content.

Deputies say these new laws are needed because the fight against “non-traditional relationships” remains a vital issue for the country, despite the war in Ukraine.

“Today we are in fact fighting to save Russia from having parents one, two and three instead of Mom and Dad,” said Khinshteyn, echoing Putin’s widely repeated talking point that European families have replaced Mom and Dad with “Parent No. 1 and Parent No. 2.”

“Russia stands at the forefront of the protection and preservation of traditional values, while the West encourages a genuine LGBT revolution.”

LGBT activists fear that the proposed legislation will lead to stricter censorship and increased violence. Moreover, lawyers point out that Russia has still not clearly defined what it means by “gay propaganda.”

“In essence, we have an anti-scientific phenomenon which is made into the basis of a law that encourages hatred toward an entire group of people,” said Natalya Solovyova, head of the board of the Russian LGBT Network human rights organization.

Russia’s current laws only impose fines for displaying “gay propaganda” to minors. The country did not decriminalize homosexuality until 1993.

Why the world should care

Russia is a country that already has a high level of discrimination against its LGBT community. The new laws effectively ban any public mention of LGBT people, which clearly affects their status and safety.

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