The Kyiv government has understood two important things about Africa:

But that truth also contains the kernel of Ukraine’s policy for Africa. Even as African nations won their independence from the 1950s onwards, Ukraine was still laboring under Moscow’s imperial yoke.

That messaging, reminding Africa that Ukraine too is a victim of colonialism, can resonate with the continent’s experience. But it is not an easy message to convey, because Russian propaganda tirelessly positions itself as an ally of the oppressed.

Ukraine makes the case, nonetheless. President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, speaking to African media representatives in August 2022, stated that “Russia is a colonizer who wants to destroy our state” and that “Many of your ancestors went through this.” 

Some are sympathetic to the message. Kenyan UN Ambassador Martin Kimani has compared Ukraine’s plight to Africa’s colonial legacy, while that country called Russia’s decision to end the Black Sea grain deal a “stab in the back.”

Ukraine is working to expand its presence in Africa. Its diplomatic counteroffensive was launched by Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba in August, and Ukraine had previously announced it would open 10 new embassies on the continent, starting with Rwanda and Mozambique. During his latest visit to South Africa in early November, Ukraine’s Foreign Minister expressed enthusiasm, stating that the visit marked the beginning of a new chapter in the relations between Ukraine and South Africa.

Kuleba stated: “Our strategy is not to replace Russia but to free Africa from Russia’s grip.”

This will prove a challenge in some countries. Russia’s Wagner mercenaries, now directly run by GRU military intelligence, have sold their services to African elites, providing armed men in return for precious minerals. They have been accused of numerous war crimes. More broadly, African countries also account for around 20% of Russian weapon exports.

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The process of improving ties with the continent will not result in instant success. Andriy Korniychuk at the Brussels-based Foundation for European Progressive Studies said: “Finland invested a lot in soft power via diplomacy in Africa, but it took three-to-four decades to really start observing results of such soft power investments.”

Ukraine’s success “is more about getting your foot in the door and setting the foundations for what can come later. Moreover, Ukraine needs a very good long-term strategy, focusing on what it can bring to the table,” he said.

And many African nations do recognize Russian aggression. In February, 30 African nations supported a UN General Assembly resolution calling for an end to the war, a slight increase from 30 last year. Only two, Mali and Eritrea, backed Russia.

Guido Lanfranchi, a research fellow at The Hague-based Clingendael Institute, explained: “For many [African governments] there is an interest in keeping a ‘non-aligned’ position. This means that, if Ukraine offers to help them in some concrete way, they may not shut the door to that for ideological reasons, but may explore avenues for cooperation, while also continuing their engagement with Russia.”

He noted that while Kenya has adopted a clear pro-Ukrainian position, at the same time it also welcomed Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov in May.

Russia knows the importance of Africa in demonstrating world opinion and for saleable natural resources and has maintained a strong presence in Africa with 40 embassies. It continues to channel its truthless explanations of events, for example, Lavrov’s July 2022 suggestion that Ukraine was blocking its own grain shipments through the use of sea mines.

In a similar vein, Lavrov has told Africans, apparently with a straight face, that Russia “hasn’t stained itself with colonialism.” A Gallup poll, which included over 1,000 African respondents from 23 countries, found that African approval of Russia’s leadership “has remained consistently higher than the global average.” In Mali, where a UN report found that Russian mercenaries were responsible for the slaughter of 500 people, Russia had an 84% approval rating.

Ukraine has to roll the rock back up the hill, and it will be a long, hard task. But success would mark a significant achievement. Russia has been getting away with murder, in Africa and Ukraine, for far too long.

David Kirichenko is a freelance journalist covering Eastern Europe. He can be found on Twitter/X @DVKirichenko.

Europe’s Edge is CEPA’s online journal covering critical topics on the foreign policy docket across Europe and North America. All opinions are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the position or views of the institutions they represent or the Center for European Policy Analysis.

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An average of 75% of respondents support the actions of the Russian army; in October, this number edged up slightly to 76% among those surveyed by Denis Volkov, director of the Levada Center, and political analyst Andrey Kolesnikov published in November.

And yet. Despite the seemingly high level of consolidation around the authorities and the military, there are signs of growing dissatisfaction among Russians but not yet manifested in open protests. The independent journalistic project “Important Stories” published a study on the most common grievances that Russians voice to Vladimir Putin.

It is crucial to underscore that complaints to the president are viewed by the majority of the Russian population as a last resort to seek justice when all other avenues have been exhausted, much as their ancestors formerly did with the tsar.

According to the data, the most pressing concern for Russians is the financial well-being of contract soldiers. The first letters to Putin on this topic appeared as early as April 2022, and by October 2023 the monthly volume of appeals on this issue had surged 25-fold. This suggests that the authorities’ strategy of “injecting” money to address the problem of the loss of Russian lives in the war is still effective. The so-called Putin majority is still willing to sacrifice the lives and health of their loved ones in return for sufficient compensation.

However, it appears that this mechanism is starting to falter. In late November, regional officials were instructed to suppress “at any cost” protests by the wives of mobilized soldiers demanding the return of their husbands from the front. Many seek to achieve this goal through “caring for the families of fighters”. However, given the shortage of funds at the local level, these expressions of care have become rather more modest.

For example, in Tuva, families of the mobilized are mainly given potatoes and firewood. In the Republic of Tyva, families of conscripts receive young cattle and coal, while in Yakutia, they get reindeer carcasses. In other places, families of the mobilized are supported with food packages and tea, and in the Tyumen region, they were given tickets to a circus performance scheduled for June.

Mobilization issues are the second-most complained about subject to Putin. The greatest number was registered in October 2022, just after the mass mobilization, with almost 13,000 letters sent to the president. In third place came complaints about contract service. Russians send over 1,000 complaints on this topic monthly, which reached a peak in September with 1,878 appeals.

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In April, the primary theme of complaints to the president concerned the lack of military leave from active service. This declined in the fall, which sociologists attributed to growing anger among military families and a resort to other methods to resolve this grievance. Some wives had begun to participate in protests, something that the Kremlin is currently actively seeking to suppress.

In addition, Russians complain to the president about the lack of assistance in finding those missing in action and the treatment of the wounded, as well as expressing dissatisfaction with low salaries in the public sector, disruption in heating supplies, household problems, and inadequate pensions.

But while there may be dissatisfaction, there are few signs of open dissent. The fact that they write complaints to Putin demonstrates that many people see the government not as the cause of their problems but as a defender and protector.

In addition to a residual faith in the goodness of the powerful, a significant deterrent to participation in protest activities, as before, remains repression. Sociologists attribute the decline in the number of open protests against the war to this, while simultaneously noting the growth of the movement of discontent among relatives of the mobilized and an increase in the number of front-line desertions.

According to researchers, the current decrease in the number of criminal and administrative cases for anti-war beliefs is not due to a reduction in the level of repression, but rather the fear of consequences having “internalized new censorship rules.” Meanwhile, the level of repression remains high, something evident in the severity of sentences, systematic physical violence by law enforcement against regime opponents, and equally systematic alternative forms of extrajudicial pressure.

Another sign of the regime’s increasingly heavy-handed approach is the surge in treason cases, which have replaced less serious anti-war charges. According to data compiled by the publication Holod, from January to July, the FSB filed at least 82 cases related to treason and espionage, whereas, in the entire previous year, only 20 such cases were filed.

Russians who wish to stay out of trouble know they must express dissatisfaction only through “permissible” methods, or face action for their supposed disloyalty.

Kremlin trolls skillfully exploit this, bombarding the wives of the mobilized with comments suggesting that they are being “set up by Navalny’s supporters.”

So, do not expect organized protests by dissenters anytime soon. But do expect that the desperate, forced to look for other means of protest, or self-preservation, resort to more covert expressions of dissatisfaction, such as sabotage, desertion, and any other means to avoid becoming one of the 300,000 or more Russians killed and wounded in Ukraine.

Kseniya Kirillova is an analyst focused on Russian society, mentality, propaganda, and foreign policy. The author of numerous articles for the Jamestown Foundation, she has also written for the Atlantic Council, Stratfor, and others.   

Europe’s Edge is CEPA’s online journal covering critical topics on the foreign policy docket across Europe and North America. All opinions are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the position or views of the institutions they represent or the Center for European Policy Analysis.

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The loss of young talent has been the biggest hit for Slovakia. More than 30,000 students were studying abroad in 2020 and almost 10% of all Slovaks live abroad, double the rate of other comparable Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) countries.

One in five Slovak university students are enrolled at foreign institutions, according to OECD data, a much higher proportion than the EU’s average of 4% studying abroad. And those who leave are those with the best exam results, according to research published in 2020.  

This loss of talent impacts the economy, with one estimate suggesting the loss of each university-educated individual translates to €2.8m ($3m) over their lifetime.  

For Slovakia, a country that has struggled to change its economic model from production to innovation, the cultivation, retention, and attraction of talented human capital is essential.   

Reversing this loss has become imperative for sustained growth and a key agenda for politicians, government institutions, and civil society organizations. The main challenge is to persuade at least 40,000 of the 1m Slovaks recorded to be living abroad to return home.

VAIA, the government’s newly formed research and innovation authority, has the issue in its sights, and Iva Kleinova, director of strategy, uses the €2.8m estimate to capture the interest of politicians and the public.   

Civil society is also stepping up to the challenge. Adrian Vycital, the Bratislava-based founder of the Slovak Global Network, stumbled across a network of talented Slovaks abroad during his international dealings and got to work mapping them.   

His organization aims to connect expatriates and encourage knowledge transfer into sectors including education and healthcare. Its annual summit was held at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in November and was attended by politicians and key civil servants.  

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Bringing Slovaks together to network with one another and nurture their connection to Slovakia is an indispensable part of the bridge-building process.

However, bridge building and bonding are not enough to achieve VIAI’s goal of 40,000 returnees. So how could this be done?   

Talent needs to be incentivized. Tax breaks for newly formed businesses and low-interest mortgages on first-time property purchases could be points of attraction.

Taking inspiration from the Hungarian model, Slovakia could also offer income-tax exemptions for families with four or more children to try to tackle the demographic timebomb of an aging population (from 2021, more people died than were born.) Subsidized childcare, a very important issue for working parents, could also be considered.   

There need to be real-world solutions and incentives for professionals. While it is important for the diaspora to see Slovakia is interested in them conceptually, through summits and community building among emigrants, when it comes to taking the leap back home there must be practical gains for those who return.   

If Slovaks abroad are able to gain tangible benefits by relocating to Slovakia they are more likely to bring their knowledge, skillsets, networks, and capital back to a country that could massively benefit from their contribution.   

And their money is not everything. The real advantage would be that a new generation of young people, with international experience, would re-establish their roots at home.  

Zuzana Palovic is the founder and co-director of Global Slovakia, a not-for-profit dedicated to sharing Slovak heritage, history, and culture to build bridges with the Slovak diaspora. She has a PhD in migration from the University of Surrey, UK, and has published five books about her homeland and its diaspora.

Europe’s Edge is CEPA’s online journal covering critical topics on the foreign policy docket across Europe and North America. All opinions are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the position or views of the institutions they represent or the Center for European Policy Analysis.

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Hamas’s brutal October 7 attack on Israel and subsequent military operations by the Israeli armed forces in the Gaza Strip have put Azerbaijan in an extremely uncomfortable position. It is a close partner to Israel but also seeks ties to influential Muslim states across the Middle East as a priority. It has had to tread carefully.

Indeed, its criticism of the violence in Gaza has been diplomatically calibrated. Baku’s relations with Tel Aviv are all too important to squander. After all, it was the Israeli high-tech weaponry such as drones that spearheaded attacks by Azerbaijani forces in the Second Nagorno-Karabakh War of 2020.

Surging air shipments just before September’s final military operation against Armenian forces in Nagorno-Karabakh suggest Israeli weaponry helped to play a decisive role in the Azeri military success and ultimately the region’s conquest.

Azerbaijan’s position is also complicated by the fact that its most important ally, Turkey, is an active supporter of the Palestinian cause, and has been especially critical of Israel, even threatening to downgrade bilateral diplomatic relations.

As a sign of this balancing game, Azerbaijan did not participate in the Muslim conference hosted by Saudi Arabia last month, where Israel was denounced. Pragmatism prevails, as was evidenced by Azerbaijan’s recent agreement to expand its energy ties with Israel.

In November, Israel issued 12 new licenses for natural gas exploration in the Mediterranean Sea to six companies. Among these is Azerbaijan’s state oil company Socar, which will explore north of the Leviathan gas field.

And despite strained relations between Israel and Turkey, and the pressure on Israel from across the Middle East, the oil trade with Azerbaijan has continued. The Malta-registered oil tanker Seaviolet recently carried 1m barrels of Azeri crude oil from Turkey’s Ceyhan port on the Mediterranean to the Israeli port of Eilat. The truth is that Israeli tanks and combat aircraft run in part on Azeri fuel — more than half its crude is sourced from Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan.

Azerbaijan’s southern neighbor, Iran, is still more viscerally anti-Israeli than Turkey.

Iran, like its Russian ally, supports the idea of regionalism whereby non-regional states (read the US, European Union, and Israel) are excluded from the South Caucasus and the Caspian Sea. It has been profoundly concerned by Azeri security ties to Israel, and related suspicions that the Jewish state may have used its facilities to launch covert operations against Iran.

Russia has been largely silent about Israel’s role in the South Caucasus, but the scheduled December 7 Moscow summit between the Russian and Iranian presidents may change this.

Presidents Ebrahim Raisi and Vladimir Putin are likely to talk about the Gaza war and more generally how to pressure Israel into abandoning its military operation. Other issues could be progress regarding the expanding International North-South Transport Corridor (INSTC) which runs via Azerbaijan from Russia to Iran’s seaports.

Iran regards Israeli involvement as a key national security issue and would like Russian assistance. Success would remove a thorn from its side and boost Iranian influence in the region, possibly also making Azerbaijan more receptive to pressure from the Islamic Republic. The two countries improved relations this year but underlying strains make the ties brittle.

It is of course possible that Israel’s focus on its own conflict might limit its role as Azerbaijan’s primary arms supplier. causing Baku to row back on thoughts of further military action.

The so-called Zangezur Corridor, which would run across Armenia’s southernmost territory to its Nakhchivan exclave, but this is anyway less plausible today —Azerbaijan’s ambitions are clouded by deteriorating ties with the European Union (EU) and European lawmakers, diplomatic pressure from the US and most of all Iran’s own strategic calculus that it must thwart the Azeri desire for a transit corridor through Armenia.

More likely, the strategic partnership between Azerbaijan and Israel will persist, with Israel providing security cooperation to Azerbaijan, and the latter offering crucial energy resources and serving as Tel Aviv’s strategic partner against Iran. The relationship has served both sides well and it should be assumed they will fight to retain it.

More broadly, the war in Gaza shows the interconnectedness of the South Caucasus with the wider Middle East and will diminish the appetite for new military endeavors in the region. For the moment at least, no one has the capacity or the appetite.

Emil Avdaliani is a professor of international relations at the European University in Tbilisi, Georgia, and a scholar of Silk Roads.

Europe’s Edge is CEPA’s online journal covering critical topics on the foreign policy docket across Europe and North America. All opinions are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the position or views of the institutions they represent or the Center for European Policy Analysis.

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Over the past year or so, the world has been shocked at the rapid leap forward in artificial intelligence (AI) and automation. While AI, machine learning, and automation have all been in use for some time, the easy-to-use interfaces that emerged late last year have made what was once the stuff of science fiction a reality for the masses. AI may very well be one of the most consequential technological developments in our lifetimes, and it has already been put to meaningful use in biological research, helping tackle climate change, protecting against financial fraud, and more.

The potential for innovation and AI to help tackle some of the most vexing issues facing society today is immense. But just as the potential for progress is real, so too are the challenges and threats that AI could bring about. A group of prominent AI experts, including leaders from the very companies working on these emerging technologies, signed a one-sentence letter earlier this year declaring that, “Mitigating the risk of extinction from AI should be a global priority alongside other societal-scale risks such as pandemics and nuclear war.” Leaving aside the risk of extinction, there are also more immediate challenges, including mass surveillance, autonomous lethal weapons, disruptions in the labor market in new and profound ways, and even just bad music.

Interestingly, this new technological development also happens to take place at the same time as two interrelated global political trends: 1) the rise of geopolitical competition and 2) the growth in efforts to erode democratic norms and protections. AI will have a profound impact on both of these. The important questions are how, toward what end, and what policymakers can do about it.

Geopolitics and AI

National power and technological leadership have always been intricately tied together. It is not just about the direct dominance in technology, but the broader economy and society that technological innovation contributes to that helps build this power. Today, this correlation is even more pronounced and is changing at a quicker rate than in the past. As Nathaniel Fick, the US ambassador at large for cyberspace and digital policy, recently explained before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, “Many traditional measures of strength, such as GDP or military capacity, are increasingly downstream from our ability to innovate in core areas. … [I]n the realm of geopolitical competition, tech is the game.”

At the same time, governments and anti-democratic forces have already begun to use AI/automation tools to manipulate the information space, interfere in democratic processes, and repress populations. In its Freedom on the Net 2023 report, Freedom House found that at least 47 governments deployed commentators to manipulate online discussions and that AI/automation tools are used to escalate disinformation, conduct mass surveillance (particularly facial recognition), and enhance censorship.

Put simply, AI is a tool that can be used by antidemocratic forces, both at home and abroad, to undermine the transatlantic community’s democracies.

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The Task for Policymakers: Keep Data Secure and Private

AI is here and here to stay, along with all the risks and opportunities that come with it. The task for policymakers in the transatlantic community is to help build an ecosystem that promotes innovation in order to maintain a competitive edge, but also protects the democratic values that undergird the community.

This will require a complex recipe, one that the world’s experts and policymakers are still figuring out. But one essential ingredient in the recipe is protecting user data.

AI systems are dependent on massive amounts of data to learn and improve decision-making processes. In turn, big data analytics use AI for better data analysis. Part of the equation for building an ecosystem for AI that is both innovative and democratic is ensuring the integrity of data, its collection, and protection. Specifically, data will need to be kept secure (privacy protected) and collected and analyzed in accordance with democratic values.

Ensuring that data is kept secure from illicit access by malign actors, whether they be state actors or criminal organizations, has been a growing priority for the past two decades. As has advancing privacy protections to ensure that personal data is not exploited commercially or shared without the user’s consent. But both have had uneven progress within the transatlantic community in recent years.

In the United States, there has been innovative thinking from policymakers focused on national security about how to bring together all the stakeholders involved in cybersecurity to better ensure the defense, availability, reliability, and resilience of its cyber networks and infrastructure. Meanwhile, in the European Union (EU) there are growing security concerns stemming from current implementation of the Digital Markets Act (DMA). The recent decision by the EU to commission a technical study to assess and map the security concerns stemming from certain provisions of the DMA shows that the security concerns are real. The study is a welcome step, but only if a thorough and genuine technical analysis of the security implications is conducted with recommendations for how to mitigate the unintended consequences.

Meanwhile, on the privacy front, the prospects for a comprehensive digital privacy law in the United States appear to be stalled, despite some serious progress last year. The EU has been years ahead of the United States with the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), but here too the DMA is creating complications. The DMA’s interoperability mandates for encrypted messaging apps could undermine the privacy gains from the GDPR. For example, Steve Bellovin, one of the world’s leading cryptographers and a former chief technologist at the U.S. Federal Trade Commission, warns that end-to-end encryption interoperability, as proposed in the DMA, is “somewhere between extraordinarily difficult and impossible.” There are other proposals in the EU and the United Kingdom that also could have the unintended consequence of undermining end-to-end encryption, which is the technology that provides privacy and secure technologies. Democracy activists, including those at the American Civil Liberties Union and Electronic Frontier Foundation, have warned that end-to-end encryption is critical to protecting human rights and democratic values. Several companies, including secure messaging apps used by civil society organizations and democratic activists, have threatened to pull out of markets due to these proposals.

AI/automation has opened up a whole new world. How this world takes shape will have profound consequences for the future of technology, society, and democracy in the transatlantic space and globally. As governments debate current and future policies, they should carefully consider the impact on cybersecurity and privacy. The stakes are high.

Europe’s Edge is CEPA’s online journal covering critical topics on the foreign policy docket across Europe and North America. All opinions are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the position or views of the institutions they represent or the Center for European Policy Analysis.

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“Moldova is destined to become the next victim in the hybrid war unleashed by the West against Russia,” declared Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, with masterful gall, at the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) Ministerial Summit on November 30. The framing carried an air of menace: a very similar formulation was used as the casus belli for Russia’s all-out war of aggression against Ukraine.

In the recent past, a threat like this would have triggered immediate concern in Chișinău, However, Lavrov’s anger this time was a response to Moldova’s bold decision to impose sanctions on Russia. Witnessing its declining military might, and having finally disentangled its economy from Russia’s, Moldova is asserting itself against the Kremlin as never before. Moldova’s former bully seems unable to conjure a response, beyond the now-familiar bluster.

In the heady days before the invasion, Russian analysts spoke of “reuniting” Transnistria — the sliver of Moldova that it has illegally occupied since 1991 — with the rest of the country. But as the reality of the war became clear, and Russia’s troops failed to break through to the border as hoped, they believed the destabilization of the pro-Western government in Chișinău by the FSB and other Russian agencies could serve as consolation.

The war itself led to recession and a flood of refugees in Moldova, resulting in widespread discontent and the dissolution of President Maia Sandu’s first government. Beyond creating the crisis, Russia has done all in its power to exacerbate the situation from funding mass protests to import bans to hiking gas prices to allegedly organizing an attempted coup.

Yet the president seems to have weathered the worst of it, with the economy recovering and alternatives to Russian gas suppliers secured. With her new cabinet, Sandu has determinedly pursued further cooperation with the European Union (EU), culminating in the announcement on November 8 that the bloc will begin negotiations on Moldovan accession. The sanctions against Russia followed.

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The sanctions represent a turning point in the relationship. During the era of Soviet domination, the entire Moldovan economy was built to suit Moscow’s needs, resulting in a near-total reliance on Russian trade. In 1995, Moldovan imports from Russia amounted to $252m (14% of GDP) and exports $360m (20%). In 2021, the most recent for which reliable numbers are available, that percentage had dropped to 7.1% for imports from Russia and 2% for exports.

That demonstrates the success of Moldova’s business sector in diversifying, despite opposition from the occasional pro-Russian government, extensive efforts by pro-Western governments, and the astronomical growth of Romania (GDP has expanded 7.5-fold since 1990), which is now Moldova’s top trading partner.

Though more recent numbers are not available, the war has almost certainly accelerated the trend toward a country free from Russian economic domination. The Moldova of two decades ago could hardly imagine actively sanctioning Russia.

Russia has responded with indignation. Nikolai Starikov, leader of the socialist SRZ party, called the move “a national betrayal . . . a direct path to escalation and war.” Alexey Zhuravslov, a Duma deputy with the nationalist Rodina party, warned: “If someone rocks the boat on the PMR [Transnistria], it will give us a free hand.” A host of state radio station Vesti FM was explicit — Sandu “is clearly dragging the country either towards war or towards loss of independence.”

The verbal denunciations from Moscow seemed to have little impact on Moldova’s government, which issued an insouciant statement. “We hope that our clear message will be understood by Foreign Minister Lavrov,” the country’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs declared. “Moldova is moving, irreversibly, onto the European path.”

Sandu is far from a shoo-in for reelection. Her approval rating is in the 40s, but the opposition is fractured. Polls have Sandu 15 percent points ahead of Igor Dodon, who led the most recent pro-Russian government. Dodon responded to Lavrov’s threat by blasting Sandu for threatening the country’s neutrality and sovereignty.

Russian threats of retaliation have so far amounted to a ban on Moldovan fruit, which Moscow had already banned a year ago. Where Russia could once dictate terms to Moldova through economic dominance, especially gas supplies, and the troops stationed across the Dniester, the war has proven Russia a paper tiger both militarily and economically.

Russia will deploy all its economic and information resources to attempt to oust Sandu in next year’s elections, but even then, the likelihood that the country will submit to Russia is weaker than ever.

Ben Dubow is a Nonresident Fellow at CEPA and the founder of Omelas, which tracks authoritarian influence online.  

Europe’s Edge is CEPA’s online journal covering critical topics on the foreign policy docket across Europe and North America. All opinions are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the position or views of the institutions they represent or the Center for European Policy Analysis.

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Ukrainians commemorated the 90th anniversary of the Holodomor famine-genocide at the end of November, lighting candles across the country (and beyond) to commemorate the at least 3.9 million victims who died as a result of Soviet policies in Ukraine.

The man-made famine was resolutely ignored and denied by the Soviet Union, with then-Soviet foreign minister Maxim Litvinov outright denying its existence and the regime banning any mention in the press. Foreign media, which tended to remain in Moscow (and some of whom were Soviet sympathizers), were prevented from traveling to Ukraine, apart from the Welsh reporter, Gareth Jones, who was later thought to have been murdered by Stalin for his trouble. Ukraine’s story was thereby seen through the Kremlin’s prism, which distorted events beyond recognition.

Not much has changed. While Ukrainians have been able to tell the truth of what happened, the Russian state continues to lie. There is once again an attempt to rewrite Soviet depredations in Ukraine and elsewhere, as it seeks to erase the USSR’s genocidal policies in its occupied republics. Since the full-scale invasion of February 2022, however, this pattern has become more sinister.

Masked Russian occupiers vandalized and destroyed 14 monuments to the victims of the Holodomor in Henichesk district, in Ukraine’s southern Kherson region, as the anniversary approached. The photos documenting acts of vandalism were released by the local occupation administration, suggesting they wanted news about this action to spread.

In the images, the men have their faces blurred, and armed with sledgehammers, destroy plaques and monuments, leaving either a pile of rubble or a plaque-less memorial in their wake, according to Ukraine’s Most. Alongside the published photos, they refer to the Holodomor as a “so-called” famine.

And just in case anyone missed the point about Russian hostility to the remembrance of Kremlin mass slaughter, the regime launched a huge wave of 77 drones aimed mainly at Kyiv on the eve of the commemoration. The attack marked a substantial spike in the current Russian attack pattern, making clear the intention to mark the event.

“The enemy is intensifying its attacks, trying to destroy Ukraine and Ukrainians,” Deputy Head of the Office of the President of Ukraine Oleksii Kuleba wrote in a Telegram post at the time, “just like 90 years ago, when Russia killed millions of our ancestors,” he said.

Russia is making a much broader attempt to rewrite the past. At home, history textbooks were distributed from the beginning of the school year that attempted to present Russia as a nation of “heroes”, and claimed that “Russia did not start any military actions but is trying to end them”. 

Furthermore, in Russia proper, memorials to eastern European victims of Soviet terror are starting to disappear or be edited. Poles have seen their monuments removed in Russia, while those commemorating Ukrainians and Lithuanians have also been affected. The human rights group, Memorial, whose work began with the documentation of Soviet mass graves and which won a Nobel Prize in 2022, had its activities terminated within Russia.

“The Russian government has never been interested in the systematic commemoration of the victims of state violence: most of the memorials erected since the late 1980s have been set up on the initiative of ordinary citizens,” noted Maria Domanska, from Poland’s Center for Eastern Studies. 

And, of course, Russia has a long history of visually stamping its presence in territories it aggressively occupies. Take Mariupol, for example. The city had a pre-war population of more than 400,000 and was one of the hardest-hit conurbations during the invasion. Russian strikes reduced a local maternity hospital to rubble last March and are believed to have killed hundreds of civilians sheltering in the local drama theater that same month.

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Residents were trapped under the rubble of their own apartments, and many were left with no access to water. While the precise number remains unknown, Russians are thought to have killed more than 22,000 townspeople.

Having razed it, Russia later claimed to be rebuilding it, erasing evidence of war crimes in the process, and renaming streets, with Russians flocking to the city as part of this drive, including the country’s young social media “influencers”, posing dramatically in front of destroyed buildings. Russia has also been sending in “mobile information complexes” to push Russian propaganda in the city. Ukraine says it uncovered plans for the ethnic cleansing of Mariupol.

Hayla Coynash, from the Kharkiv Human Rights Protection Group (KHRP), pointed out that in Mariupol, Russian invaders destroyed the Memorial to the Victims of Holodomor, even fabricating a propaganda video in which “Mariupol residents” proclaimed their support for the monument’s removal. “The alleged aim was to use the granite for construction work. Over a year later, major parts of the city remain in ruins,” she notes.

As the Atlantic Council’s Ian Brzezinski recently commented, Putin’s Russia isn’t just grabbing territory, “he’s trying to literally rewrite Ukrainian identity, rewrite Ukrainian history, he’s trying to impose his vision of what that people is. We haven’t seen an action like that since World War II, and it is genocidal,” he stated.

Between 1931 and 1934, at least 5 million people died of hunger as a result of Stalin’s forced famine in Ukraine. Mass food shortages were the direct result of Soviet authorities’ confiscatory policies and “unrealistically high grain collection targets”. And, as historian Bohdan Klid points out, the Holodomor wasn’t even the USSR’s first famine in Ukraine — there was a lesser-known one in 1928-29.

“In the case of the 1928-29 famine, grain procurements (obligatory deliveries of grain to the state) were conducted and continued in the condition of a poor harvest, due largely to unfavorable climatic conditions,” Klid said. “The state continued collecting grain for a period and even shipping some of it out of Ukraine to meet demands in other Soviet republics, mainly Russia.”

“In both cases, not enough grain was returned (emphasis on the word returned).”

The Genocide Convention of 1948, shaped and formulated after the Holodomor, was influenced by the Soviet Union, as well as South American nations who sought to eliminate the inclusion of “political groups” from its scope (likely because it would be self-incriminating).

In trying to eliminate all forms of national identity in Soviet-occupied and Soviet-administered countries, the USSR could claim that during the Holodomor it was rather targeting the “kulaks as a class”, or “elites” as opposed to nations themselves (the Baltic states, Ukraine, Kazakhstan all suffered the destruction of their cultural identity and local languages during this time – the fact that the USSR was conducting aggression on such a massive scale bizarrely helps it argue against genocide).

However, Lemkin himself, who coined the term genocide, called the famine “the classic example of Soviet genocide”.

And tragically, the Kremlin is once again making food a weapon of its war of aggression. In commemorating the Holodomor, US President Joe Biden drew an explicit parallel between the Holodomor and Ukraine’s position today.

“Russian forces seek to destroy Ukraine’s economy and independence, deliberately damaging fields and destroying Ukraine’s grain storage facilities and ports,” he said. “It is not just an attack on Ukraine’s economic security, it is a cynical assault on food security everywhere.”

Aliide Naylor is the author of ‘The Shadow in the East’ (Bloomsbury, 2020). She lived in Russia for several years and now reports from Ukraine and the Baltic states.  

Europe’s Edge is CEPA’s online journal covering critical topics on the foreign policy docket across Europe and North America. All opinions are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the position or views of the institutions they represent or the Center for European Policy Analysis.

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Russia was always one of the most accomplished myth producers and, still- more important, has been one of the world’s largest exporters of myths about itself. Some of these have changed over time, but all served a single purpose — to create a sacred canopy that could conceal the real Russia from the outer world.

Winston Churchill’s 1939 maxim that “Russia is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma” highlighted this very idea.

Russian rulers like to depict the country as a powerful and unbreakable state, synonymous with national grandeur. A central theme of the myth is that Russia cannot lose a war, including the ongoing Russia-Ukraine war, and that Russians loyally support the regime, come what may.

The agencies of the state, including the All-Russian Center for the Study of Public Opinion (VTsIOM), conduct surveys that confirm this. They report unwavering support for the war against Ukraine and rising trust in Vladimir Putin (78%). Unlike the Soviet era, there is an acknowledgment that some reject the war of aggression, but the pollsters say this unhappy minority is stable at around 20%.

Russians will die for this myth of national greatness and foreigners, spellbound by the sacred canopy will see only some mystical and even transcendental entity that rational Western scholars have no hope of understanding.

It’s nonsense of course, but there are truths buried within this that can be useful to the regime. The most important of these is that Russia will fight on forever, regardless. For the Kremlin, which has gambled on draining Western interest and determination, it’s perhaps the most useful myth of them all.

In reality, the regime does have real problems.

One of the most telling examples was the attitude of Russians to the mass mobilization edict in the fall of 2022. According to the very first wave of sociological monitoring, “The Mirror of Russia” conducted by the author’s Institute for Conflict Studies and Analysis of Russia (IKAR), a Kyiv-based organization that continues to survey Russian opinion, there was a strong rejection of further mass conscription.

Even those who demonstrated loyalty to the regime opposed any further call-up and (crucially) showed no personal willingness to be mobilized next. This attitude remained very clear throughout this year and has even strengthened — the number of those who won’t support such mobilization policies rose from 60% in December 2022 to 69% in September 2023.

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What has the Kremlin learned from this? We have to draw conclusions through inference, but it’s fairly clear. Firstly, Putin’s pollsters have without doubt conducted their own private sociological surveys, and secondly, there has been no new wave of mass mobilization. The regime knows how people feel, and it fears their possible response.

Russian military analysts urged the government to make this decision in the spring, or at the latest in the summer, to no avail. So we can reasonably conclude, with high probability, that Putin won’t announce a further mobilization until he is re-elected in March 2024, and that the Russian military will have to continue using covert mobilization with 20,000 conscripted monthly.

The alleged war criminal, FSB agent, and military blogger Igor Girkin, even lost his freedom, being sent to jail for criticism of the Kremlin and then of Putin himself. Girkin’s main complaint concerned the absence of a second wave of mass mobilization. Putting him behind bars was risky for the Kremlin, but mobilizing hundreds of thousands of Russians was even riskier, given popular attitudes.

Recent Russian surveys from various companies have tended to make headlines in the West when certain questions are asked, like whether Russians support an end to the war or a “special military operation”. When a majority of Russian citizens express support, it triggers a sense of optimism. Perhaps the support of ordinary Russians is lower than imagined.

Sadly, however, the results are less clear-cut. Systematic sociological analysis shows societal readiness to end the war was almost as strong a year ago. Moreover, in December 2022 the number of those happy to see it end immediately was 69%, rising to 76% at the beginning of the fall. 

Delving a bit deeper, surveys ask on what terms would Russian society accept peace.

The answers are complicated. Look at Russian attitudes towards the loss of Kherson, the only oblast capital they managed to occupy after the full-scale invasion. A few months after Kherson’s liberation, they were asked how they assessed its loss. Three-quarters of respondents supported withdrawal because it helped to save Russian soldiers.

What does this tell us? It suggests that Russians reconcile themselves to decisions made by the authorities. In the same way, some 60% supported the first wave of mass mobilization but opposed another. Once a decision is made and implemented, most Russian citizens don’t see any reason to oppose it because it has already happened.

Such a mindset offers the authorities considerable room for maneuvering on decisions in occupied Ukrainian territories. The outlook can be summarized as “what’s done is done”. This is not wholly bad news — after all, it also suggests the Kremlin could withdraw and not face too great a backlash.

To be clear, there are signs of war weariness. Last December, 48% of Russians backed an indefinite war until total victory; that number is 15% at most. And vice versa, the number of those willing to wait a few months for the war’s end increased to 44% from 31%.

This is known in the Kremlin and makes it fearful of a possible future. If Russians shift from passive acceptance to overt resistance, perhaps propelled by demands that they become fresh cannon fodder on the Ukrainian front, the situation could change quite fast.

Myths are a significant part of this multi-dimensional confrontation. Only a calm and scientific approach will provide unbiased data to detail the population’s mood swings and to predict the evolution of the Russia-Ukraine war.    

Dr. Oleksandr Shulga is the head of the Institute for Conflict Studies and Analysis of Russia (IKAR), the only institution in Ukraine conducting monthly sociological monitoring in Russia. He possesses 16 years of advanced experience in the field of quantitative and qualitative sociological research. During these years, Dr. Shulga was engaged as a supervisor, consultant, or expert to carry out various studies, including areas of the potential risk of escalating tensions and instability.  

Europe’s Edge is CEPA’s online journal covering critical topics on the foreign policy docket across Europe and North America. All opinions are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the position or views of the institutions they represent or the Center for European Policy Analysis.

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The election pledge by Slovakia’s new prime minister, Robert Fico, of “not a single bullet to Ukraine“, seemed clear enough, and drove much Western commentary on the vote and its implications.

Here was a leader determined to reverse course and effectively put Russia before Ukraine, a charge also leveled against neighboring Hungary, which could therefore be seen as an ally. NATO solidarity on the Eastern Flank was beginning to fracture.

But as so often in Central Europe, politics are more complex than they first appear. Slovakia’s defense industry — with its ability to produce badly needed Soviet- and NATO-caliber weaponry and ammunition — has won rich contracts to produce armaments for Ukraine. Was Fico really willing to ditch this and harm those companies?

As it turned out, he was not. It transpired that Fico’s pledge carried a footnote — *this policy applies only to supplies from Slovak Armed Forces stockpiles, and in no way affects commercial, contractual deals.

This “clarification”, though not mentioned before the election, is now consistently echoed by the prime minister, Defense Minister Robert Kalinak, and Foreign Affairs Minister Juraj Blanar, all from Fico’s SMER-SD party. This uniformity in messaging suggests a strategic effort to ensure both domestic and international audiences get the memo.

This is a pragmatic approach. Konštrukta-Defense, a state-owned company known for the Zuzana 2 howitzer, reported record sales and net profit last year. Sales increased by 34% to nearly €85m $92.5m), and profits soared almost tenfold to €13.9m from €1.4m in 2021.

Similarly, ZVS Holding, another state-owned large-scale ammunition producer, saw sales of €44m in the first seven months of this year, surpassing last year’s total of €40m. The company is investing over €31m in new technology and expanding its production infrastructure. Both firms are based in Dubnica nad Váhom, part of the Trenčín district, the best-performing electoral region for Fico’s party and its coalition allies.

But while the new administration may be more moderate than thought on Ukraine, it is exhibiting a domestic focus that is harder to wave away. There are escalating attacks on civil society and media, a bending of the rule of law, and overall democratic backsliding. Meanwhile, international media, pundits, and policy analysts are primarily concerned with the government’s contrarian stance on military assistance to Ukraine and sanctions against Russia.

Data from the Ukraine Support Tracker by the Kiel Institute indicates that Slovakia ranks 13th in total bilateral military commitments, contributing €667m. When measured as a percentage of GDP, with 0.633% committed to military aid, Slovakia is the sixth largest supporter. Despite its relatively small population, Slovakia’s contributions have an important symbolic and political value, even though much of the aid consists of old, poorly maintained Soviet-era weaponry and various types of ammunition from stockpiles. The plus side to all this is that it has unexpectedly accelerated the modernization of Slovakia’s military, a development unforeseen before the invasion.

However, the current coalition government views the military assistance to Ukraine as a severe detriment to national defense capabilities, bordering on treason. Debates, particularly concerning high-profile military equipment like the two batteries of the S-300 air-defense system and handing Ukraine 13 MiG-29 Fulcrum fighter jets, have been intensely politicized. These debates have even led to several unsuccessful lawsuits against the interim government.

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The government is nonetheless very interested in the defense industry, although it feels little warmth toward Ukraine (Politico suggests that this dates to Fico’s grudge at his treatment when he visited in 2009.)

The government has initiated a series of high-level management changes since it took power.

The Defense Minister dismissed Stefan Skultety, CEO of DMD Group, which wholly owns the subsidiary Konstrukta–Defence and 50% of ZVS Holding shares. Also, the CEO of Konštrukta–Defence, Alexander Gursky, was dismissed from his position. Gursky was a strong advocate and key figure within the company for prioritizing the Ukrainian market.

Some worry that this decision in particular could hinder the development of closer cooperation with Ukrainian industry. In the summer, Konštrukta–Defence signed a memorandum of cooperation with the PJSC Kramatorsk Heavy Duty Machine Tool Building Plant. This agreed to the joint development of a new 155mm howitzer and the modernization of the Ukrainian Bohdana artillery platform. Additionally, a trilateral agreement involving Ukraine, Slovakia, and the Czech Republic was reached for the joint procurement, maintenance, and operation of CV90, an infantry fighting vehicle produced in Sweden.

These projects and similar projects are now at risk. There’s a concern that they might be deprioritized or derailed as a result of politicization or indifference.

While Fico’s approach to major foreign policy issues like support for Ukraine might seem inconsistent, he shows a strong determination to fulfill his domestic promises and threats.

He has openly targeted certain media outlets, branding them as hostile towards his government, and has officially declared that he will cease communication with them. Moreover, he hinted that his cabinet might reassess governmental advertising spending in these media. In addition, there are plans to reform the Slovak public broadcaster, RTVS, by separating its TV and radio branches, a move that critics worry could lead to a full governmental takeover of the institution.

Meanwhile, the administration is also working on law enforcement. Several police investigators working on corruption cases involving members or nominees of the SMER-SD and Hlas-SD parties were sidelined from active duty. This action was taken despite their status as protected whistleblowers and a court decision declaring such a move by the Minister of Interior illegal.

Civil society too is under the spotlight. Proposals for a Slovak version of the repressive Russian foreign agents law and changing or halting a taxpayer’s right to assign 2% of their tax total, a vital funding mechanism for many civil society groups, are much discussed by coalition representatives.

These developments offer a clear indication of the new administration’s view of media, public broadcasting, law enforcement, and civil society in Slovakia. It is not a friendly environment.

Slovakia’s friends in the European Union (EU) and elsewhere would do well to remember this, and should not trade Fico’s support for a broad consensus on strategic issues in return for a blind eye to his illiberal approach to domestic opponents and independent watchdogs.

Matej Kandrík is Chief Executive Director and co-founder of the Bratislava-based Adapt Institute and a Ph.D. candidate in Political Science with a specialization in Security and Strategic Studies at Masaryk University in the Czech Republic. He has also researched at the National Defence University of Poland.

Europe’s Edge is CEPA’s online journal covering critical topics on the foreign policy docket across Europe and North America. All opinions are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the position or views of the institutions they represent or the Center for European Policy Analysis.

Europe's Edge
CEPA’s online journal covering critical topics on the foreign policy docket across Europe and North America.
Read More