Germany expelled two Russian diplomats on Wednesday after prosecutors said Moscow could be behind the killing of a former Chechen rebel commander in a Berlin park.
Zelimkhan Khangoshvili, a 40-year-old Georgian national, was shot twice in the head at close range in Kleiner Tiergarten park on August 23, allegedly by a Russian man who was arrested shortly afterwards.
The case has been compared with the poisoning of former Russian agent Sergei Skripal in Britain last year with a Soviet-era nerve agent, widely blamed on Russian intelligence.
The attempted murder plunged relations between Britain and Russia into a deep freeze, leading to tit-for-tat diplomatic expulsions.
After Germany’s move on Wednesday, a Russian foreign ministry representative pledged “retaliatory measures”.
“A politicised approach to investigation issues is unacceptable,” said the representative, adding that Germany’s statements were “groundless and hostile”.
The suspect in the Berlin killing was said to be riding a bicycle and was seen by witnesses afterwards throwing the bike and a stone-laden bag with a gun into a river.
He has until now been named by police only as Vadim S but evidence revealed by German prosecutors on Wednesday indicated a possible fake identity.
“The foreign ministry has today declared two employees of the Russian embassy in Berlin as personae non gratae with immediate effect,” the ministry said in a statement.
“Despite repeated high-ranking and persistent demands, Russian authorities have not cooperated sufficiently in the investigation into the murder.”
Federal prosecutors in charge of intelligence cases earlier on Wednesday said they had taken over the investigation.
“There is sufficient factual evidence to suggest that the killing… was carried out either on behalf of state agencies of the Russian Federation or those of the Autonomous Chechen Republic,” the prosecutor’s office said in a statement.
Chechnya has been led with an iron fist since 2007 by Ramzan Kadyrov, a close ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Russian ministry link
Outlining the results of their investigation so far, the statement said Vadim had travelled from Moscow to Paris on August 17 and then on to Warsaw on August 20.
He left his hotel in Warsaw on August 22 and his movements between then and the murder were unclear, it said.
Prosecutors said his visa for travelling to Europe indicated he was a civil engineer working for a company in Saint Petersburg.
But the company was not operational and a fax number for the firm was registered to another company belonging to Russia’s defence ministry.
Prosecutors said the man’s features matched those of a suspect in a 2013 murder in Moscow in which the suspect also approached the victim on a bicycle.
The investigative website Bellingcat on Tuesday said the suspect in both murders was 54-year-old Vadim Krasikov, who grew up in Kazakhstan when it was part of the Soviet Union before spending time in Siberia.
German media said the suspicion was that Russian intelligence agencies had recruited him after the 2013 killing.
Bellingcat said the victim had fought in the second Chechen war in 1999-2002, then continued supporting Chechen separatists from his native Georgia.
He also lived for a time under an assumed identity as Tornike Kavtarashvili, according to media reports.
Bellingcat said he “recruited and armed” a volunteer unit to fight Russian troops in Georgia in 2008.
After surviving two assassination attempts in Georgia, he had spent recent years in Germany and applied for asylum.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has signed a law a requiring all smartphones and computers sold in the country to come pre-installed with Russian software.
The legislation, which will take effect in July 2020, is aimed at promoting Russian-made software. But it has been dubbed the “anti-Apple” law because it would force the US tech giant to pre-install non-Apple software on its products.
The Russian government will now draw up a list of products affected by the law, published and signed by Putin on Monday, as well as a list of applications that would need to be pre-installed.
It comes amid a slew of measures taken by Russian officials to control the tech sector, including a law that took effect on November 1 requiring local internet providers to install devices provided by authorities to enable centralised control of traffic.
Apple last week appeared to bow to government pressure and began showing the annexed Crimea peninsula as part of Russia on maps and weather apps in the country. After the move sparked outrage in Ukraine, Apple said it might “adjust its approach”.
Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese leader Xi Jinping on Monday launched the first gas pipeline linking the two countries.
The mammoth Power of Siberia pipeline connecting the world’s top gas exporter and its largest energy importer crowns years of tough negotiations and work in difficult conditions.
“Today is remarkable, a truly historic event not only for the global energy market, but first of all for us and for you, for Russia and China,” Putin said during a televised ceremony featuring the two leaders.
Xi said the project “serves as a model of… mutually beneficial cooperation between our countries.”
“The development of Sino-Russian ties is and will be a foreign policy priority for both our nations,” Xi said on Russian television in translated remarks.
Alexei Miller, head of Russian gas giant Gazprom which championed the project, said nearly 10,000 people had worked to build the enormous pipeline.
During the ceremony Miller was shown ordering workers to open a valve allowing gas to pass across the border into China.
“Gas is going to the pipeline system of the Chinese People’s Republic,” he said.
The 3,000-kilometre (1,850-mile) pipeline runs from remote regions of eastern Siberia to Blagoveshchensk on the border, then into China.
Russia and China signed a 30-year, $400 billion deal to build and operate the pipeline in 2014, after a decade of difficult talks. It was Gazprom’s biggest contract.
The company is to supply China with 38 billion cubic metres (1.3 trillion cubic feet) of gas annually when the pipeline is fully operational in 2025.
Gazprom has stressed that the pipeline ran through “swampy, mountainous, seismically active, permafrost and rocky areas with extreme environmental conditions”.
Russia is also planning to soon launch two more gas pipelines that will ramp up supplies to Europe while bypassing Ukraine.
TurkStream, which Putin and Turkish leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan hope to launch in January, is to transport Russian gas to Turkey.
Nord Stream-2, which would double Russian gas volumes to Germany, is expected to go online in mid-2020.
NATO marks its 70th birthday at a summit next week but the celebration could well turn into an arena of political combat between the alliance’s feuding leaders.
Heads of state and government will descend on London Tuesday bracing for a scrap overspending and how to deal with Russia, in a huge test of unity within NATO — billed by its own officials as the “most successful alliance in history”.
US President Donald Trump has repeatedly accused European countries of failing to pay their way and will be looking for evidence they are stepping up defence spending.
France’s Emmanuel Macron has despaired of the club’s strategic direction, saying it is suffering “brain death” — riling other leaders and drawing a rare public rebuke from German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
And, on Friday, Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, furious at Western criticism of his operation in northern Syria against the Kurds, hit back with a personal attack on Macron.
“First of all, have your own brain death checked. These statements are suitable only to people like you who are in a state of brain death,” Erdogan declared Friday.
In a televised speech, Erdogan said he would “say this at NATO”.
French officials summoned the Turkish envoy in Paris to complain while a US administration official said that many members would tackle Turkey over its purchase of a Russian S-400 air defence system.
This combustible line-up is dropping into a Britain gripped by a frenetic national election campaign, with Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s friendship with Trump under attack from opposition parties.
Personal duels aside, the NATO summit agenda is pretty thin. Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg is hoping simply to get the leaders to sign off on decisions already taken.
Last year’s NATO summit in Brussels went off the rails when Trump launched a tirade at Merkel during a televised breakfast meeting.
The week before this summit has seen a stage-managed series of spending announcements, all designed to send what one diplomat called a “political signal” to appease Trump.
‘Trump Is Right’
Stoltenberg was at pains to point out on Friday that non-US defence spending has grown for four straight years and is on course to hit $130 billion next year.
A Trump administration official expected 18 of the 29 members to meet the alliance’s two per cent target by 2024.
Stoltenberg said Trump was right about Europe and Canada needs to spend more, but not “to please President Trump”.
“They should invest in defence because we are facing new challenges, our security environment has become more dangerous,” he told reporters.
Stoltenberg is attempting to mollify Trump ahead of the summit by talking up a billion-dollar contract with US planemaker Boeing to upgrade the organisation’s reconnaissance planes.
NATO members have also agreed to lower the cap on US contributions to the alliance’s relatively small $2.5 billion operating budget, meaning Germany and other European countries — but not France — will pay more.
But such measures are a drop in the ocean compared to the tens of billions of dollars Europeans would have to spend to meet their promise to spend two percent of their national GDPs on defence.
In 2014, the allies promised to meet this goal within a decade. But this week Merkel admitted that economic powerhouse Germany would not hit this sum before “the early 2030s”.
Stoltenberg insists Trump’s tone towards NATO has been more positive of late, and a senior US administration official said Friday Trump’s spending campaign had been “spectacularly successful.”
‘Still Working Out What He Wants’
But Macron’s broadside to an Economist interview earlier this month took many by surprise.
The French leader stood by his remarks after talks with Stoltenberg, saying NATO was failing to address relations with Russia and what do to about Turkey.
Macron’s forthright comments have drawn sharp public criticism, both from Germany and from eastern European NATO countries that feel threatened by Russia.
An official from Macron’s office told reporters that NATO lacks political direction and relies too much on the US.
“We can’t sweep debates under the carpet because we’re afraid the Americans will disengage further” he added.
A Trump administration official on Friday dismissed the “brain death” comments, saying “President Macron is still kind of working out what he wants out of the group”.
The official, speaking to reporters on condition of anonymity, said Trump will tell the NATO summit that China and Russia remain major challenges.
“China above all,” the official added.
Tomas Valasek, a former Slovak ambassador to NATO, said even if there was merit in opening debate, Macron had overstepped the mark.
“NATO leaders have a responsibility that thinks tankers don’t,” said Valasek, now a senior fellow at the Carnegie Europe thinktank.
“If you run one of the nuclear powers and in some ways the most powerful military in Europe you don’t want to feed the perception of NATO disunity and I’m afraid that’s what he’s done.”
At the London summit, leaders will consider separate French and German proposals for expert committees to mull how NATO can improve its strategic thinking.
Stoltenberg last week welcomed the German plan to create a group of experts — chaired by Stoltenberg himself — but was cool on the French plan.
No formal statement by all 29 leaders will be issued. Instead, there will be a “short declaration on the ‘success story of NATO'”, a diplomat said.
“Russia is much more assertive than it was 10 years ago. It’s got some self-confidence now as it reasserts itself as a global power,” Carter told BBC television.
“Cyber is part of that, what happens in space is part of that, disinformation, subversion, manipulation, assassinations, and of course the use of mercenaries, which are very easily undeclared and non-attributable,” he said.
“Reckless behaviour and the lack of respect for international law relating to these new types of ‘weapons’ risks escalation that could easily lead to inadvertent miscalculation,” Carter separately wrote in The Sunday Telegraph.
Russian President Vladimir Putin flatly denies the Kremlin’s involvement in cyber and ground operations that Western intelligence agencies and analysts pin on Moscow.
But Carter said this “deniability” is a tactic now being perfected by Britain’s main foes.
His media appearances are timed to remind Britons of the challenges they still face on Remembrance Sunday — the day the country honours those who fought and died in World War I and subsequent conflicts.
It also comes with US President Donald Trump wavering on Washington’s commitment to the NATO military alliance and French President Emmanuel Macron promoting the idea of a European army.
Britain wants to preserve NATO as it prepares to leave the European Union after nearly 50 years.
“I have seen absolutely no evidence of any military planning to suggest that we are going to have a European army, and no declaration to that end has been made,” Carter told the BBC.
Russian troops wearing World War II uniforms on Thursday marched across Moscow’s Red Square in memory of the historic 1941 parade when Soviet soldiers went directly to the battlefield to fight the Nazis.
The annual re-enactment featuring some 4,000 troops and T-34 tanks commemorated the legendary November 7, 1941 parade whose participants marched from Red Square to the front line, becoming a symbol of courage and patriotism.
Some 7,000 guests including World War II veterans watched the parade.
“Our duty is to continue to be victorious and build a great country,” Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin said at the event.
The Red Army’s triumph in the deadliest war in history is seen as a huge point of pride in Russia.
In recent years, the victory in the 1941-1945 conflict — known in Russia as the Great Patriotic War — has acquired signs of cult status.
Nazi Germany’s invasion on June 22, 1941, caught Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin by surprise and Nazi troops were able to come close to Moscow.
The November 7 parade was seen as a much-needed morale booster and enraged Adolf Hitler.
Psychologist Irina Bobakova, whose grandfather was killed in 1941 in the battle for Moscow, said that it was important for a country to honour the memory of its history.
“Otherwise, there will be no great future,” she told AFP.
Facebook said Wednesday it had taken down accounts linked to a Russian ally of President Vladimir Putin seeking to spread disinformation on the social network in eight African countries.
The influence operations hiding behind fake identities were traced back to Yevgeny Prigozhin, who has been indicted in the United States in connection with a campaign targeting the 2016 US elections.
“Each of these operations created networks of accounts to mislead others about who they were and what they were doing,” Facebook cybersecurity chief Nathaniel Gleicher said in a statement.
“We have shared information about our findings with law enforcement, policymakers and industry partners.”
The accounts originated in Russia and targeted Madagascar, Central African Republic, Mozambique, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Ivory Coast, Cameroon, Sudan and Libya, according to Facebook.
The update suggests an expanding effort by Russia and is the latest move by the social media giant to halt foreign influence efforts in the United States and other parts of the world.
“We’re constantly working to detect and stop this type of activity because we don’t want our services to be used to manipulate people,” Gleicher said.
“In each of these cases, the people behind this activity coordinated with one another and used fake accounts to misrepresent themselves, and that was the basis for our action.”
Links to Mercenary Group
Stanford University researchers who worked in parallel with Facebook on the investigation said at least some of the purged accounts came from Russia’s Wagner Group, a shadowy private army which is believed to have been active in conflicts in Syria and Ukraine, and sent mercenaries to the Central African Republic and Sudan.
Considered a secretive Russian oligarch, Prigozhin is believed to be behind the Internet Research Agency, which has been linked to US election interference, as well as the Wagner Group.
Prigozhin, who has denied any ties to the Wagner Group, gained prominence for operating high-end restaurants in Russia in the 1990s, earning him the moniker “Putin’s chef.”
A statement from Stanford’s Cyber Policy Center said the operations appear to be “at least in part at the behest of a state actor” but also relied on subcontractors who are native speakers or people within the region, making it harder to detect.
“In addition to well-known social media platforms such as Twitter and Facebook, the actors leveraged public WhatsApp and Telegram groups,” the Stanford team said.
“The operation used social media engagement tactics designed to develop a close relationship with the audience, including Facebook Live videos, Google Forms for feedback, and a contest.”
The Stanford group said the African operations followed the playbook of the Internet Research Agency.
“The operatives created several associated news sites (in one case staffed by reporters who appear to have spent time in Russia) as well as Facebook Pages that produced social-first content (memes, live videos),” according to the researchers.
Facebook described three separate operations targeting both its core social network and Instagram.
One operation included 35 accounts and 53 pages that focused on Central African Republic, Mozambique, Democratic Republic of Congo, Ivory Coast and Cameroon.
The effort attracted some 475,000 followers and spent $77,000 for ads posting on global and local political news including Russian policies in Africa and criticism of French and US policies.
A separate operation targeting Sudan included 20 different accounts and 18 pages, some posing as news organizations.
The third network, focused on Libya, involved 15 accounts and 12 pages posting about local news and geopolitical issues.
The Stanford researchers said the operation appears to be part of “Russia’s global strategy for reasserting itself as a geopolitical superpower” and follows the deployment of paramilitary groups in Libya and the Central African Republic.
Putin last year surprised the West with a string of high-profile moves that strengthened Russia’s influence in the CAR, an extremely poor but strategically important country that has traditionally had close ties to France, the former colonial power.
Russia sent military trainers to the CAR’s beleaguered armed forces, a senior aide to advise the president and mercenaries to provide his security, and offered to mediate between the government and the country’s many rebel groups.
Russia on Saturday accused the United States of “international banditry” after Washington announced its intention to protect Syria’s oil fields which are controlled by Kurdish forces.
The statement comes after US Defense Secretary Mark Esper said US troops were reinforcing their positions, including with mechanised forces, in Deir Ezzor, the country’s largest oilfields, near the Iraqi border.
Their mission will be to prevent the Islamic State group from gaining access to oil fields and securing “resources that may allow them to strike within the region, to strike Europe, to strike the United States,” Esper told reporters on a visit to Brussels.
Some 200 US troops are currently stationed there.
“What Washington is currently doing – seizing and placing under control the oil fields of eastern Syria – is simply international banditry,” Russia’s defence ministry said in a statement.
It said all hydrocarbon deposits in Syria do not belong to “the Islamic State terrorists” and “even less to US defenders against Islamic State terrorists, but exclusively to the Syrian Arab Republic.”
A Russian soldier on Friday opened fire on troops at a Siberian military base, killing eight and injuring two, officials said, blaming the attack on a possible “nervous breakdown”.
The incident took place at an army base in the Chita region in eastern Siberia during a change of guard.
“The serviceman who opened fire has been detained,” the defence ministry said in a statement.
Russia’s Investigative Committee, which probes major crimes, said the shooter was a conscript named Ramil Shamsutdinov and launched a murder case.
The base is located in the town of Gorny which is closed to all outsiders without a special permit and is managed by the Ministry of Defence directorate responsible for maintaining Russia’s nuclear arsenal.
Officials claimed the incident was not work related.
“The actions of the serviceman could be the result of a nervous breakdown caused by personal circumstances not connected to his military duty,” the defence ministry said, quoted by Russian news agencies.
The wounded were hospitalised, the ministry said.
Andrei Kurochkin, the deputy chairman of soldiers rights organisation Committee of Soldiers’ Mothers, said that in general such cases of mass murder are the result of abuse and total desperation.
“Commanders just close their eyes to cases of systematic bullying,” he told AFP.
Senior officers leave victims with no means of complaining by confiscating their phones and overseeing all conversations with relatives, he said.
“They say it’s to protect state secrets, but in reality that’s the last priority,” he said.
When such cases are probed, “investigators come to the base and interview soldiers who have already been briefed on what to say,” Kurochkin said.
State news agency TASS, quoting a source, said two of the victims were officers, while the rest were conscripts and contract servicemen.
TASS said the two wounded were in a serious condition and would probably be flown to Moscow for treatment.
A commission chaired by Deputy Defence Minister Andrei Kartapolov was on its way to the base.
A defence ministry spokesman declined to comment when reached by AFP.
Brutal hazing rituals were a major problem in the Russian army in the 1990s but this has significantly improved in recent years.
Military conscription is compulsory in Russia for all male citizens aged between 18 and 27.
President Muhammadu Buhari on Wednesday met with President Vladimir Putin of Russia during the plenary session of the Russia-Africa Economic Forum in Sochi.
The plenary session was attended by other world leaders including African Heads of State and governments, Chairman of the African Union etc.
Senior Special Adviser to President Buhari on Media and publicity, Garba Shehu had earlier in a statement said his principal and the Russian leader would meet at Nigeria and Russian bilateral meeting on Wednesday, while President Buhari would make a statement at the summit on Thursday.
Other participants at the summit that will showcase Russian interest and investment potential in Africa include businessmen, experts, investors, leaders of major sub-regional associations and organisations.