China’s ‘social credit’ system ranks citizens and punishes them if the Communist Party deems them untrustworthy.  Although the Russian government has denied plans to copy China, it has introduced digital profiles for migrants and taxi drivers, and signaled its desire to extend the procedure to schoolchildren.

The introduction of these surveillance systems produced little protest – until the authorities decided to introduce a permanent digital profile for soccer fans. Soccer fans, according to experts, have remained almost the last organized movement in Russia partly outside of government control.

The new digital profile, dubbed Fan ID, is required to purchase tickets for games. Russians apply for a Fan ID online or offline. Prior to its introduction, purchasers of tickets for sports events remained anonymous. Only clubs stored the personal data of their supporters.  Fan ID allowed the Russian Ministry of Digital Development to collect the data, and share it with the Ministry of Internal Affairs.

Fan ID was first used at the Sochi Olympics in 2014. It was next deployed for international soccer competitions in Russia: the 2017 Confederation Cup, the 2018 World Cup, and the 2020 European Championship.

Fan ID was not imposed for domestic Russian Premier League matches – until after the 2018 World Cup when the government proposed to extend it.  President Vladimir Putin signed a Fan ID bill in December 2021, allowing the government to designate cultural and athletic events requiring Fan ID. As a first trial step, authorities made it mandatory to buy soccer tickets for five stadiums. Starting this December, it will become obligatory at all stadiums hosting Russian Premier League games. The official justification is to “ensure the security of the state, public safety, and public order during official sports competitions.”

However, Russian soccer stadiums already are secure. They are already equipped with cameras connected to a facial recognition system. To enter the stadium, fans pass through metal detectors and indicators of hazardous liquids and explosives.

The real reason for Fan ID is not security. It is to ban access to sporting events to citizens opposed to the state.  Under the law, attendance may be prohibited “if it is necessary in order to ensure the defense capability or security of the state or public order.” This justifies denying access to the stadium to any soccer fan, political activist, or journalist.  Applications for Fan IDs already have been denied to opposition political activists and journalists.

Soccer fans are outraged. St. Petersburg’s Zenit fan club refused to apply for Fan IDs. Moscow club Spartak fan clubs soon joined in the boycott.  By February 2022, fan groups of almost all Russia Premier League clubs had announced that they would not attend matches requiring Fan ID.

Supporters have not limited themselves to boycotting matches. They come to stadiums that do not yet require Fan ID in black mourning shirts, leave during the match, and post videos demanding the removal of Fan ID. Management of many clubs support their fans.

Attendance at stadiums where Fan ID was introduced has dropped dramatically. In August 2022, 8,931 people attended the match between Ural and Spartak. In May, when Fan ID was not required, 26,402 spectators attended the Ural-Spartak game at the same stadium. In September 2022, only 220,000 people in all of Russia registered in the Fan ID database.

Despite the protests, the Russian government does not plan to repeal Fan ID. The Kremlin fears showing any weakness.  Although the law allows the Government to extend the Fan ID to all other sporting events, the Kremlin looks unlikely to take additional measures during the Ukraine conflict.

The soccer protests are important. They underline the fragility of public support for Kremlin repression. At the least, it will make the Kremlin cautious about additional tools of digital repression, not to mention a Chinese-style social credit system.

Alena Popova is the Public Policy Fellow at the Wilson Center and founder of the Ethics and Technology think tank.

The Russian leader’s comments came on September 7, two days after Ivan Safronov, a former defense reporter with the Kommersant and Vedemosti dailies, was jailed for allegedly sending material to the Czech and German intelligence services. The verdict marked the latest tightening of a crackdown on independent journalism, and occurred the same day that authorities revoked the license to publish of the award-winning paper, Novaya Gazeta

Safronov’s sentencing has been widely criticized by Russian and international rights defenders alike. Russian human rights lawyer Pavel Chikov termed it a “savage, pointedly cruel punishment.”

The ex journalist’s own lawyer told reporters: “Safronov was given 22 years for his journalistic activity. I want each of you, who are looking at me now, to think whether it is worth staying in this profession, if somebody was given 22 years for doing his job.” Safronov, 32, had left journalism to become an aide to the head of Russia’s space agency, Roscosmos, and was arrested in 2020. Since then, he had been held in pre-trial detention at Moscow’s notorious Lefortovo Prison. 

The lengthy term is thought to be the direct result of his refusal to admit his guilt to authorities; he had been promised a 12-year term if he confessed. He was also handed a 500,000-ruble ($8,200) fine by Moscow City Court.

The authorities claimed the material in question was so secret that the case had to be held behind closed doors. But according to research published by the independent investigative outfit Proekt, all the information that investigators say he distributed was in the public domain and easily accessible online via sources such as Regnum, Izvestia, and the Russian Ministry of Defense.

Safronov received a round of applause in court on September 5 as the crowd chanted “freedom”. He told those present that he loved them before he was taken from the courtroom to begin his prison term.

While this is an unusually harsh sentence, it fits a pattern of regime action against independent media and journalists, as previously detailed. While Safronov’s case is not related to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, restrictions have substantially tightened since the all-out attack was launched on February 24. Even prior to the invasion, Proekt was declared an “undesirable” organization in Russia last year and news outlets like Meduza were forced into exile in Latvia.

Russian independent media published a collective statement on Monday demanding his release. 

“This is a frightening time,” said the statement. “The indictment is illustrative of the active and high-quality journalistic work of Ivan Safronov – and the illegal activities of the FSB, which established surveillance over him back in 2014.” This was three years prior to his alleged spying for foreign intelligence, and six years before he was originally detained. 

The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) said that Russian authorities must release Safronov immediately in a statement released Monday, adding that they should “stop targeting journalists with political trials aimed at suppressing and terrorizing independent voices.”

Both Safronov and Novaya Gazeta plan to appeal the court decisions. 

Aliide Naylor is the author of ‘The Shadow in the East’ (Bloomsbury, 2020). She lived in Russia for several years and is now based between London and the Baltic states, working as a journalist, editor and translator. 

Military analysts have already called the president’s decree unrealistic, especially given Russia’s deteriorating demographics. The latest conscript call up, for the first time in several years, fell short of its goals by a third, and a possible increase in the length of conscription service will only strengthen the trend of young men seeking to avoid army service, according to Pavel Luzin, an expert on international relations and security. Putin may decide to transfer part of the paramilitary Russian Guard (Rosgvardiya) to the armed forces, but that would reduce his resources for fighting protesters inside the country.

As for the possibility of sending more conscripts to the war with Ukraine, that is opposed even by military experts loyal to the Kremlin. So too is the suggestion of a general mobilization. The authors of the Military Review website, which is close to the Russian Ministry of Defense, warned that the effect of such a decision would have consequences similar to those faced by the US during the Vietnam War. It was the conscripts returning from the front who often became the most ardent anti-war activists, they wrote, and protests against the war almost led to a social explosion in American society (though the authors could have found a more recent example closer to home — Russia’s disastrous experience during its war in Afghanistan from 1979-89.)

If conscripts are mobilized and sent to the front, anti-war sentiment will begin to grow, “fanned” by committees of soldiers’ mothers (as during the Afghan and Chechen wars) and other similar organizations, they warn. Oddly, the authors of the article claim it’s the US that will stoke such sentiments in Russia, as if Russian mothers are incapable of experiencing grief at the loss of their sons without outside instigation.

Sociologists loyal to the Kremlin share the doubts of military experts. “The loyalist and middle-class segments of society, which make up the absolute majority of Russian citizens,” may have supported the so-called “special operation” (the all-out invasion of February 24) in the beginning, but as the hostilities drag on with no end in sight, they are becoming fatigued. Ordinary people increasingly just want to “hide their heads in the sand” and take care of their own “pockets and well-being,” Yaroslav Ignatovsky, head of the Politgen analytical center, wrote on Telegram. According to a sociological survey published in August, despite formal support for the war, 62% of men are not ready to take part in it.

The regime faces further problems with indiscipline in the conscript ranks. In July, it was reported that about 20 Russian soldiers who refused to fight in Ukraine were imprisoned in the Luhansk region for several weeks under the guard of fighters from the notorious Wagner mercenary company. According to the “refuseniks”, some of them were kept in the basement while being threatened with pre-trial detention and court. Meanwhile, the Ukrainian military said on September 5 that a regiment of forcibly conscripted Russian troops from Donetsk and Luhansk had also mutinied over a range of issues including a lack of water. An affiliated unit was said to have surrendered early in the southern offensive, which began on August 29.

Even contract servicemen are less than eager to fight. For example, in August, it emerged that a group of such troops — regarded as better motivated due to better pay — from Dagestan who refused to participate in hostilities in Ukraine were being put under unlawful pressure. They are placed in guardhouses, their military documents stamped with “inclined to treachery,” they are deprived of lump sum payments and threatened with a tribunal.

Yet things will have to get worse before there is a broader uprising by soldiers’ mothers and wives. Many are frightened by the prospect of criminal cases for the slightest criticism of the war, some agree to remain silent in exchange for monetary compensation for their dead sons, and others still sincerely believe in state propaganda about the conflict. Propagandists, in turn, actively promote stories in which the mothers of dead servicemen (now numbering at least 25,000 according to the UK defense secretary) talk of their deep respect for Vladimir Putin, of their support for the war, and how proud they are of their children who “fought against fascism.”

Nevertheless, there are periodic expressions of dissatisfaction. At the end of June, the wives of Buryat military personnel recorded a video message in which they asked the head of the republic, Alexei Tsydenov, to return their husbands from the so-called special operation. A month later, more than 100 families of Russian servicemen openly demanded that Putin find their sons, husbands, and brothers who were in the combat zone in Ukraine.

Of course, appeals are not protests. Their authors neither openly oppose the war nor accuse Putin of unleashing it, but, on the contrary, they view him as the only source of help and protection. However, as the ongoing war starts affecting every family, it will begin to disrupt what the Russians value the most in the world — a normal and peaceful life.

As for resources for the war, even experts loyal to the Kremlin have repeatedly noted that they are inadequate. However, Russian forces should not be underestimated. According to the military, the country still has superiority in manpower, as well as attack aircraft, armored vehicles, and its ability to strike at the Ukrainian rear.

Russia’s best hope? That a freezing winter, combined with a shortage (or complete shutdown) of Russian gas, will force the European allies to compromise. Preparations by the European Union for lower supplies and further pledges of military and financial assistance for Ukraine suggest that — thus far at least — that hope will be disappointed.

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.

Ukrainian intelligence has been confident Belarusian troops are unlikely to join Russia’s war of aggression and for good reason: Although Russia has forces in Belarus, and has used it as a launching pad since February, the combined Russian-Belarussian force there would not be enough to make any strategically meaningful gains.

Monitoring group Belaruski Hayun’s hasn’t reported any significant Russian-Belarusian troop buildup near the border, and a growing number of Kyiv’s residents are returning to their homes after fleeing in February, clearly seeing little likelihood of another northern attack.

Yet if Russia were to remove its Aliaksandr Lukashenka, who for years has been juggling the West and Russia with a strong inclination toward the latter, it would have full control over Ukraine’s northern border and direct access to Latvia, Lithuania, and Poland.

It might look like a quick gain for an imperialistic president who has so far embarrassingly failed in Ukraine, who could once again portray himself as a master strategist, now with direct access to the key Suwalki corridor, a think neck of NATO territory separating Kaliningrad from Belarus. Of course, such an act would carry grave risks — it’s unlikely Belarusians would accept such a move and Putin might simply open another disastrous front. But the all-out invasion of Ukraine was also a seemingly insane risk, and that didn’t deter the Russian leader.

Belarus represents a great prize for Putin’s geopolitical ambitions and Russians, the majority of whom support his criminal crusade according to official polls, would be presented with a new addition to Russkiy Mir, or Russian World.

Though Lukashenka now appears largely a puppet of the Russian president, it is only recently that Belarus has come so dangerously close to full Kremlin submission. The shift happened after the dictator’s theft of power from his democratic rival Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya during the 2020 Belarusian presidential election. Faced with mass protests and at risk of losing power, he asked Putin for “security” assistance to suppress the largest rallies in post-perestroika Belarus. In return, Russia was allowed to station troops and other military assets in Belarus, including nuclear warheads.

Before then, Lukashenka occasionally enjoyed publicly rejecting and even criticizing Putin — a demonstration of his independence and ability to negotiate as a middleman. But now Belarus is more vulnerable than ever to a Kremlin takeover, with Lukashenka deeply reliant on the Kremlin for everything from gas to cash.

Lukashenka’s options are grim as he treads a tightrope.

At home, he faces the risk of Belarusians taking to the streets to finally oust him. Tsikhanouskaya, now in exile, has been campaigning in the West to seize on Lukashenka’s vulnerability. The fearful former farm manager has now introduced the death penalty for “terrorism,” a charge faced about:blank both by people opposed to the war in Ukraine and to his authoritarian regime. His military reforms meanwhile seem designed to shore up his dictatorship rather than ready his army for use in peer combat.

While the Belarusian army is around 45,000 strong, Lukashenka cannot count on its unswerving loyalty. Nearly 90% of Belarusians are opposed to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and a poll by Chatham House in March suggested only 3% supported their troops being involved. Just 16% backed Belarus territory being used for the invasion and Russian false flag operations designed to win support for the war have so far failed to change minds.

Even if a third of the Belarusian army are Lukashenka loyalists, they would likely be deployed first against the Ukrainians and the inevitable casualties would leave Lukashenka with an increasingly disloyal force, and even more vulnerable to Russia. Some Belarusian troops might even switch sides and join the ranks of Ukrainians, as a number of their compatriots already have.

Internationally, Lukashenka has been shunned and mocked for his authoritarian regime after he detained a dissident journalist from an international flight, instigated a migrant crisis, and allowed Russia to invade Ukraine from Belarusian territory. As a result, he has triggered sanctions against Belarus and provoked deep hatred from his southern neighbor.

In the face of high risk to his life and status, if he steps out of line, Lukashenka has been giving much of what he’s asked to his Russian counterpart. Without Belarus, Russia would have no strategic northern access point into Ukraine, which has given it marshaling areas, missile launch sites, and military airfields for its campaign.

Lukashenka’s options in negotiating with the West are also constrained. The US and United Nations reportedly offered to lift potash fertilizer sanctions if Belarus opened up the transit of Ukrainian grain by railway to Lithuania, but that would put him into direct conflict with Putin. Additionally, more than 90% of China-Europe rail freight goes through Belarus, giving leverage over the European Union, but at the same time, any threat to the corridor risks irritating China.

At least publicly, Lukashenka has said Putin will win his war against Ukraine, no matter how much military support Kyiv receives from the West. He may just be paying lip service to Putin, but so far his actions suggest he’s still siding with the Russian despot.

The West should offer Lukashenka a deal – either cooperate with the West, and benefit from a progressive lifting of sanctions, or continue down the current path and risk everything.

Cutting off Russia’s access to Ukraine via Belarus might well help to end Putin’s war. If Russia’s only committed Eastern European ally decided to withhold cooperation, it would demonstrate Putin’s weakness. That’s if he doesn’t act first.

Ilya Timtchenko is a Master of Public Policy candidate at the Harvard Kennedy School, a Belfer Young Leader Student Fellow at the Kennedy School’s Belfer Center as well as a Research Assistant for the Belfer Center’s Intelligence Project and The Future of Diplomacy Project. Ilya was the business editor at Kyiv Post from 2017-2019 working with the newspaper’s newsroom team which transferred to The Kyiv Independent.

The bursts of fire were more likely trigger-happy Russian troops than advancing elements of the Ukraine Armed Forces (UAF), revealing a key detail of the military operation now underway —unlike Russia’s tactics of victory through destruction, Ukraine wants to take the city without leveling it.

“We want to avoid street warfare, because we don’t want to destroy the city,” UAF Major Roman Kovalyov, based north-east of Kherson province, told the Economist.

Kherson and its remaining citizens are luckier than most cities affected by Russia’s war, cities like Mariupol and Kharkiv, which have been the targets of months of indiscriminate shelling. The former city, now captured, was estimated to have suffered more than 20,000 dead.

It is hard to know exactly what is happening inside Kherson at the moment, other than the occasional video. There were more than 280,000 inhabitants before Russia’s all-out invasion, but that number is now much lower and its composition has changed — Russia has given empty and stolen apartments to loyalists and is banning the Ukrainian currency and use of the language in schools.

Over the past few weeks, Ukrainian forces have been slowly preparing for a counteroffensive so that they can eventually push the Russians entirely out of the country. That process begins to the north of Kherson, which is now probably the most important contested territory in Ukraine. The offensive began on August 29, and according to some (optimistic) assessments by the Ukrainian military, their forces can reclaim Kherson by September.

That would have a significant impact on the war. Current trends favor Ukraine. Over the past six months, the Ukrainian Ministry of Defense estimates that nearly 50,000 Russian soldiers have been killed, and billions of dollars of Russian military hardware have been destroyed (Western estimates put Russian dead at 20,000-plus.)

Russian morale is low, as an extraordinary August 31 story illustrated. At least three Russians died after drunken soldiers engaged in a close quarters gunfight with FSB troops. The surviving mutineer is being prosecuted for murder. Reports say ragtag battalions of mostly older men along with convicted criminals and some willing foreigners are being sent to the front, some with barely any training. While the backbone of the Russian regular army remains, albeit badly bloodied, this is a battle they cannot afford to lose.

Kherson is one of the few major metropolitan centers Russia has captured since the start of the war; its loss would bode very badly for Russian forces. It might also lead to political backlash back home, where the population is told that the operation is going to plan.

There is another motivator for the Ukrainians. Numerous reports have suggested the Russians aim to hold an illegal referendum in Kherson in September. During the illegal annexation of Crimea in 2014, the Russian Federation also held a rigged referendum. The falsified results claimed that the residents of the Crimean peninsula voted to reunify with Russia. Likewise, in February 2022, Russia announced that it had incorporated the Russian-occupied territories of Donbas. The Ukrainian military response is therefore a key element of its existential fight.

Yet this will be a deadly and costly process. Over the past few weeks, Ukrainian forces have been attacking four bridges near the city of Kherson in an attempt to restrict Russian movements in and out of the city (these attacks are now almost nightly and have made the infrastructure unusable for resupply convoys). As the Ukrainians continue to destroy other forms of infrastructure to the north of the River Dnipro and to the west of the River Inhulets, to trap the Russian troops, the aim is to separate these Russian forces from the rest of the Russian-occupied portions of Ukraine.

Ukrainian forces are also slowly encroaching on Kherson, thus making a southern siege more likely. To date, the Ukrainians have destroyed ammunition depots, command posts, and Russian strongholds in the south. While reinforcements have been observed, the quality of the new troops is unclear. By strategically weakening Russian positions, the Ukrainians are hopeful that this will “degrade Russian forces to such a degree that an attack can succeed.” This strategy would also limit the number of Ukrainian casualties. Thus, the ongoing advance on Kherson requires patience and precision.

Russia is certainly vulnerable. Earlier this month, a series of surprise attacks were launched on occupied Crimea, attacks which have been attributed in foreign reporting to partisan or special forces commandos working far behind the lines. Russian airfields and ammunition depots were destroyed (along with a significant number of navy combat aircraft), badly damaging its military capacity in the south. Despite its lack of a navy, Ukrainian forces have sunk several Russian naval vessels and its Black Sea flagship. 

The recapture of Kherson would give the Ukrainians a strategic advantage on the Black Sea and in southern Ukraine. It would allow them to fortify positions near the critical port city of Odesa, and would put them within striking distance of Crimea. Should events unfold in Ukraine’s favor, it would then allow the Ukrainians to shift their focus to the eastern theater in the Donbas.

But first, they must take the city and its hinterland. That requires a continuing stream of weaponry, which in turn requires continuing support from the West. Unfortunately, military aid alone is not enough; the world should continue to provide financial, humanitarian, medical, and defense aid to Ukraine.

Ukraine has demonstrated that it is committed to winning this war, and will do whatever it takes to achieve this outcome. The democratic world has the power to help the Ukrainians win this war, to force the Russians out of their country, and to demonstrate that the West remains clear about its values and determined to uphold the rules-based order.

Mark Temnycky is an accredited freelance journalist covering Eastern Europe and a nonresident fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Eurasia Center. He can be found on Twitter @MTemnycky

Before Russia launched its war of aggression, its roads and railways served as major arteries for trade between China and the European Union (EU). But the conflict, and widespread Western sanctions, have upended Eurasian connectivity, possibly to the benefit of its neighbors.

The Middle Corridor has some drawbacks which may prove problematic, but for now, it presents an opportunity. Starting in Turkey, it reaches Central Asia via the road and railway infrastructure of the South Caucasus and the improving ferry-crossing capabilities in the Caspian Sea.

The route is the shortest from western China to eastern Europe. But it nevertheless has a number of obstacles.

The first is its multimodal nature traversing both land and sea. And while the northern route consisted almost entirely of one country – Russia — the Middle Corridor composes at least four.

The second is the lack of necessary infrastructure. Cross-Caspian transshipment is currently inadequate. Port infrastructure on the Georgian side of the Black Sea is likewise in serious need of both upgrade and expansion. Some minor steps were made in this direction with the Poti and Batumi terminal upgrades, but the ambition to become a major artery requires a deep seaport. The Anaklia port construction failed due to murky internal Georgian politics and possible Russian meddling, underlining the Kremlin’s fear of how its deep-water, Black Sea port of Novorossiysk could be undermined. With no concrete plans for the near future and intense political infighting among Georgian parties, short-term port improvements seem unlikely.

There is also a wider geopolitical problem. Russia is currently preoccupied with Ukraine which constrains its ability to forestall the emergence of the Middle Corridor, but that may change. Already keenly aware that neighboring countries (most notably Kazakhstan) are using the opportunity to create some breathing space, a refocused Russia will highly likely be hostile towards a new corridor taking traffic and revenue.

Yet there are positive signs for the route. In July, the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) pledged a €100m ($100m) investment in Kazakh railways. Moreover, Georgia has been unusually busy on the project, with Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili making a series of visits to Central Asian states. On July 26-27 he was in Kazakhstan where he held intensive discussions around the Middle Corridor, or Trans-Caspian International Route (TITR), as it is also known. It is notable that bilateral trade between the two states in the first half of 2022 increased almost fivefold to $147.7 m. The growth is very likely an indication of goods finding new routes to market.

The Georgian leader also visited Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, where transportation routes were also discussed. In Tashkent, the two sides signed an agreement on the use of existing transport infrastructure. Georgia has reasons to be active diplomatically — in the first half of this year, Georgian Railway earned $70 million from freight, which is the highest figure in years.

This fits into various projections where cargo shipments from Central Asia to the Black Sea could increase by 600% growth in comparison with the previous year.

In March, Georgia joined Turkey, Kazakhstan, and Azerbaijan in hammering out a common declaration that formulated the countries’ approach to the development of the Middle Corridor.

The effects of the Russian invasion are reverberating across the entire region and nudged nearly defunct transportation projects into new life. One such is the China-Kyrgyzstan-Uzbekistan (CKU) railway, which has been discussed for decades without progress. Yet with the route through Russia now closed, there are significant shifts in how the costly and difficult-to-implement project might be realized. Uzbekistan recently announced that the agreement on the railway will soon be signed. Uzbek leaders are also eyeing the possibilities of using South Caucasus infrastructures such as the existing Baku-Tbilisi-Kars railway, or the suggested route through Armenia connecting Azerbaijan proper with its exclave of Nakhchivan.

There was further positive news on the CKU railway from Kyrgyzstan, whose president said that he had secured the agreement of Russia to develop the route. The Kremlin has been careful not to oppose the project openly, but it was well known that it had worked to capitalize on Kyrgyz anti-Chinese sentiment, and more broadly to foster economic dependence on Russia.

Other bigger players are also embracing the Middle Corridor. Turkey is heavily involved. In early August, it joined Azerbaijan, and Uzbekistan to establish a new format that will respond to new transportation demands following February’s upheaval. In May, Erdogan hosted his Kazakh colleague and both explicitly supported the route.

Europe is also keen to encourage development. In July, the European Union (EU) and Azerbaijan signed an important agreement to more than double gas deliveries. While most attention focused on this major development, European diplomats also mentioned investments of some $2bn to help remodel Baku port into a transregional hub between Central Asia and the Black Sea. This follows European companies’ growing interest in the route. For instance, in April, the Maersk shipping line shifted its transit route from Russia to the Middle Corridor. A similar move was made by Nurminen Logistics of Finland.

Yet without the biggest Eurasian economy, China, the Middle Corridor will struggle. China is certainly interested, though it has not been as vocal as others in supporting the route. Political moves however show it is willing to develop the corridor as an alternative.  

The Middle Corridor is after all the shortest distance and while the belt and road initiative does not officially cover the South Caucasus, and is anyway experiencing expansion problems, China is slowly adapting. The CKU railway is one case.

Nevertheless, it remains to be seen how far China would be willing to go. It may not want to anger Russia and has generally deferred to Russian geopolitical interests in the South Caucasus.

Yet China needs to get its goods to market and the Russian route is currently unavailable, as it may be for some time to come. That means most countries have an interest in developing a new route as an alternative for EU-China trade. The Middle Corridor is not an easy option, but it may turn out to be the only plausible land route.

Emil Avdaliani is a professor at European University and the Director of Middle East Studies at the Georgian think-tank, Geocase.

Imagine that the Third Reich did not perish in defeat, but survived for decades. After Hitler’s death, it undergoes partial reforms, before descending into stagnation. In the mid-1980s a provincial Nazi bureaucrat called Michael Gorbach comes to power in Berlin. Eloquent and energetic, he tries to reform the failing Nazi system with Öffenheit and Umbau. These would be called “openness” and “reform” in English — and glasnost and perestroika in Russian.

It fails. The Third Reich was founded on mass murder, hatred, lies, and theft. It is held together by fear. Remove that, and the whole thing falls apart in 1991. After decades of occupation, half-forgotten nations like Denmark, the Netherlands, and Austria return to the world map. Gorbach retires to write self-serving memoirs and appear in a pizza advert. He initially supports, but later criticizes, Waldemar Putschnik, the former SS officer who becomes leader of the new German Federation.

This thought experiment may help assess the legacy of another provincial party bureaucrat: Mikhail Gorbachev. He too tried to reform a totalitarian empire but ended up humiliated amid its ruins. But whereas we flinch at the notion of a reform Nazi, we are more willing to accept the idea of a reform Communist.

Gorbachev’s educated, humane, cooperative approach was indeed a refreshing change after years when the Soviet leadership exuded aggression mixed with decrepitude. I still remember the exhilaration of the end of censorship, the beginnings of political competition, and the lifting of the shadow of nuclear war. I witnessed the joyous rebirth of democracy and sovereignty in (then) Czechoslovakia and the Baltic states.

But credit for these astonishing transformations should go chiefly to the bravery of the people who fought for freedom when it seemed impossible, not to those who grudgingly conceded it when it became inevitable. That Gorbachev’s botched, belated salvage mission stood no chance of success is a cause for celebration. The Chinese Communist Party’s economic reforms, earlier and better planned, worked. We are all living with the consequences.

Western panegyrics over Gorbachev’s grave reflect ingrained orientalism. To say that he allowed the Soviet empire to collapse without bloodshed implicitly dismisses as sub-humans the scores of Georgians, Latvians and Lithuanians killed and wounded in failed crackdowns from 1989 to 1991. In a similar vein, Western decision-makers — including then US President George HW Bush — preached restraint to the captive nations of the Soviet empire, saying that their desire for independence endangered Gorbachev’s vital reform efforts.

It is true that Gorbachev battled with hardliners. But his aim at every stage was like theirs: to save the evil empire, not to abolish it. He precipitated the collapse of the planned economy and the one-party state, and brought some light to bear on the crimes of the Soviet past. He did not get to grips with other core elements of the Soviet system: chiefly imperialism and the pervasive influence of the KGB. His legacy: 30 years on, the elements of continuity between the Soviet and modern Russian systems eclipse the differences. Contemporary Russian philippics about Gorbachev and his era reflect nostalgia for the glories and certainties of the Soviet era — and the ambitions to recreate it.

Gorbachev could have used his one great asset, his foreign fan base, to sound the alarm on this terrible danger. The kind of influential Westerners who so patronizingly and obtusely ignored abundant warnings from the “east Europeans” about Russia’s aggressive, repressive tendencies might just have listened to the revered voice of the last Soviet leader. But Gorbachev for years preferred to join the grievance-laden, xenophobic Putinist chorus.

His vanity, his besetting sin, precluded contrition for that. And for anything else.

Edward Lucas is a Non-resident Senior Fellow at the Center for European Policy Analysis (CEPA). He was formerly a senior editor at The Economist. Lucas has covered Central and Eastern European affairs since 1986, writing, broadcasting, and speaking on the politics, economics, and security of the region.

Russian surveillance systems are supplied not only to foreign companies but also to foreign governments, including law enforcement agencies. Russian suppliers often partner with Western technology giants, avoiding sanctions imposed because of the Ukraine war.

Here’s a guide to the main producers of Russian surveillance and facial and speech recognition tools:


Systems for Operative Investigative Activities (SORM) are hardware and software for monitoring information passing through telephone operators.


This company develops SORM hardware and software. It supplies IT solutions for the Defense and Interior Ministries. Protei operates in 35 countries, including Mexico, Cuba, Colombia, Italy, and the United Arab Emirates. It has offices in Jordan and Estonia and partners with Western firms including Nokia and Oracle. After the Ukraine invasion, Protei has continued to operate outside of Russia. In March 2022, the company signed a contract with the Pakistani mobile operator CMPAK.


Nexign, formerly known as Peter-Service, is another SORM supplier.  The company is part of Kremlin insider Alisher Usmanov’s USM Telecom holding. Usmanov was put on the US sanctions list after the invasion of Ukraine, but not his company. Nexign’s products have been delivered to 14 countries. Its partners include Microsoft and Oracle. Representative offices are open in the Dominican Republic and the United Arab Emirates.

Nexign said that it does not offer SORM products or DPI solutions and has not done so in the past.


According to various estimates, Citadel holds between 60% to 80% of the Russian SORM market. The company’s owner has close ties with the security forces – the company employs generals from the Russian FSB Secret Service and the Ministry of Interior. Citadel supplies  equipment for the implementation of the Yarovaya Law, which obliges Russian telecom operators to collect and store user traffic. Its subsidiary MFI Soft supplies solutions for tracking user traffic to the countries of the former Soviet Union, and through the Canadian company ALOE Systems, has exported to Canada, the USA, Mexico, Argentina, Brazil, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Peru, and Uruguay.

Facial and Speech Recognition

Russian facial and speech recognition systems are popular around the world. At home, the Kremlin uses them to carry out mass detentions of political activists.


NtechLab leads the Russian market in producing facial recognition systems and video analytics. In 2017, the fund of oligarch Roman Abramovich took a stake; the next year, state corporation Rostec invested. Ten  Russian cities and 26 countries deploy the technology. NtechLab’s main foreign office is located in Cyprus.

Clients include US companies Intel, SpaceX, Dell, and Philip Morris, according to a leaked document. Police and military agencies, including Interpol, the Brazilian Federal Police, and the Royal Thai Army also use NtechLab products.

US authorities acknowledge the technology’s effectiveness. In 2017, the US Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity (IARPA), together with the US National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), held a competition for facial recognition algorithms. NtechLab won.

Despite the Ukraine invasion, NtechLab continues to grow around the globe. In March 2022, it announced, a partnership with Bangladeshi software company Ribat Metatech. In May 2022,  the company delivered a facial recognition system to Sri Lanka. In June, 2022, NtechLab announced an expansion in Mexico.


VisionLabs built Moscow’s facial recognition system. Its technology is used in 60 countries, including the US, Canada, France, and Germany. The company even received an award from the US magazine Financial Services Review.

In December 2021, Kremlin-connected businessman Vladimir Yevtushenko acquired VisionLabs. Yevtushenko has been included in the UK sanctions list.

Speech Technology Center

The Speech Technology Center (STC) develops facial, voice, and biometric recognition systems. Originally a public institution, state-owned bank Sberbank became the majority shareholder, only to sell out to an unknown new company after the start of the Ukraine war. According to media reports, the deal was designed to avoid Western sanctions against Sberbank.

STC gained worldwide infamy in December 2011, when Wikileaks, in its The Spy Files project, included it in the list of manufacturers of surveillance technologies. The company acknowledges its cooperation with the Russian Federal Security Service, the Ministry of Interior, and the Federal Protective Service. Its products have been shipped to more than 75 countries. Foreign partners include Oracle and Cisco.

Russian-made digital surveillance continues to spread around the world. Clients include democracies, whose leaders often declare opposition to the tools of digital authoritarianism. Instead of buying Russian-made systems, they should stop using them.

Alena Popova is the Galina Starovoitova Fellow at the Wilson Center and founder of the Ethics and Technology think tank

July 20 marks the 78th anniversary of the attempt by honorable Germans, including military officers, diplomats, and jurists, to assassinate Adolf Hitler. Even though plotters knew that the assassination and the connected coup attempt could cost them their lives they went ahead, knowing that an evil regime had to be thwarted. Vladimir Putin is, of course, not Hitler. But even if they lack the 20 July plotters’ moral compass and repudiate their methods, current Russian officials should emulate their efforts.

Were it not for a fluke in the People’s Court in Berlin on February 3, 1945, people wouldn’t know very much about the assassination attempt on 20 July the previous year. To be sure, they’d be aware that it happened and that it was carried out by Colonel Claus Schenk von Stauffenberg, a decorated officer from an intellectual family. They’d also know that the coup attempt resulted in Stauffenberg and several other plotters being summarily executed, and they might know that in the following weeks and months countless others — officers, diplomats, jurists — were sent to the gallows after show trials presided over by the sadistic judge Roland Freisler.

Many might have read that the internationally known and respected pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer had to give his life for his part in the coup attempt. Far fewer, it’s safe to say, have seen the rare surviving footage from Freisler’s trial of Count Ulrich Wilhelm Schwerin von Schwanenfeld, a reserve officer and committed resistance member. Those who have watched the footage will never forget it. At one point, Schwerin von Schwanenfeld tries to mention the murders he witnessed in Poland, and is immediately interrupted by Freisler’s shouts of “MURDERS? MURDERS?”  

The reason most of us know much more about 20 July is that on February 2, 1945, Freisler was killed and his victim survived. On that day, the Allies bombed Berlin, and one of the bombs caused a wooden beam in the People’s Court to fall just as Freisler was hounding the young lawyer Fabian von Schlabrendorff before sending him to his death. Freisler died, but the badly tortured von Schlabrendorff survived, and used his new lease on life to write Offiziere gegen Hitler (Officers Against Hitler), which was published in 1946.

Initially, von Schlabrendorff gained virtually no appreciation for having committed to paper the history of the 20 July coup and the painstaking planning (and assassination attempts) that preceded it. Post-war Germans didn’t want to be reminded of the courage of those very few who had dared to oppose Hitler. But today the book – and the memory of the brave members of the 20 July plot, and the student resistance group the White Rose – stand as monuments to integrity and morality under even the most brutal regimes.

The 20 July men’s plan was not just an attempt to halt Hitler’s crimes against other countries and against many citizens within his own country; it was also an attempt to demonstrate to posterity that not everyone supported him. Thanks to July 20, Germans and the world know that in the midst of unspeakable evil enabled by countless people who did nothing to stop it, at least some senior people were willing to risk their lives to bring down a tyrannical regime.

That doesn’t mean that officials in dictatorships have an obligation to try to assassinate the dictator. But it does mean — and this is especially true for Russian officials today — that they ought to reflect on their responsibility to prevent the harm caused by an unjust ruler. Russian officers, diplomats, and other senior officials would do well to read Officers Against Hitler. Yes, Vladimir Putin has not yet unleashed a world war, and he has not yet completely perverted Russia in the way Hitler perverted Germany. I’m not suggesting, either, that Russian officials ought to assassinate Putin.

But they do have more power to change Russia’s disastrous course of action than virtually anyone else. Many also have solid professional reputations. Or rather, they’ve had such reputations. Today Sergey Lavrov is such a persona non grata in the world of diplomacy that the G-20 foreign ministers’ meeting on Bali had to take place without a so-called family photo. Russian ambassadors, until relatively recently part of the international tribe that prides itself on fairness and problem-solving expertise, have to debase themselves from repeating Moscow’s lies. Surely some of them have it in themselves to team up to tell Putin they’ll resign en masse unless he stops his brutal war?

Maybe they don’t. Maybe they just lack the morality of people like on Schlabrendorff, von Stauffenberg, Bonhoeffer, and their ilk. But even if that’s the case, they ought to at least consider posterity. Do they really want to be remembered as spineless and slightly ridiculous figures? Even if only for the sake of their children and grandchildren, they might consider their current trajectory and the near-guaranteed derision they will receive from historians. Do any of them wonder how they might change it?

We can but hope.

Elisabeth Braw is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), where she focuses on defense against emerging national security challenges. She is also a columnist for Foreign Policy and the author of ‘The Defender’s Dilemma: Identifying and Deterring Gray-Zone Aggression’ (AEI Press, 2022) and ‘God’s Spies’ (Eerdmans, 2019), about the Stasi.