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A surprise arrest and a corruption scandal hint at splits in Putin’s inner circle

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A corruption scandal centered on allegations against Russia’s deputy defense minister has drawn surprise and speculation from close observers of the country’s elite.

But it’s not the allegations against Timur Ivanov — a close ally of Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, well known for his lavish lifestyle — that are causing a stir. Instead, many are trying to figure out what his sudden arrest means in the power games at the heart of the Kremlin

The arrest was announced last week by Russia’s Investigative Committee, which said Ivanov had been detained on suspicion of taking a bribe. He will remain in custody until at least June.

During  court proceedings held Wednesday, the once powerful figure appeared in a glass cage,  still wearing his army uniform. 

Ivanov, a top Russian military official, was arrested on suspicion of accepting a bribe, The Investigative Committee, Russia's top law enforcement agency, reported Ivanov's detention on Tuesday without offering any details of the accusations against him, saying only that he is suspected of taking an especially large bribe.Timur Ivanov, Russian deputy defense minister, standing in a glass cage in the Basmanny District Court in Moscow on Wednesday.Basmanny District Court press service via AP

The official Telegram channel of Moscow City Courts said in a release after the hearing that Ivanov had been accused of “receiving a bribe on an especially large scale,” which could see him face up to 15 years in jail. The court release also said Ivanov had  entered “a criminal conspiracy with third parties” to commit a crime and accused him of receiving a bribe in the form of services rendered to him as the result of “contracting and subcontracting work for the needs of the Ministry of Defense.”

Several other people were arrested in connection with the probe, including construction boss Alexander Fomin, who is being accused of giving a bribe in connection with Ivanov’s case, according to a separate release on the Moscow City Courts Telegram channel. 

Ivanov has denied the bribery charges against him, his lawyer told state media. The Moscow City Court will hear his appeal May 8.

The case follows years of work from the Anti-Corruption Foundation of late opposition leader Alexei Navalny and other Russian journalists investigating the sources of Ivanov’s wealth.

Asked about a report from a prominent Russian journalist that Ivanov might be facing graver charges of state treason, the Kremlin asked reporters not to speculate about the case and to rely on “official information” from investigators.

Vladimir Putin in MoscowRussian President Vladimir Putin. Alexander Kazakov / AFP – Getty Images

With the case short on public details, the spiraling probe has Russian media and analysts abuzz with theories: Were the charges brought on the orders of the boss, President Vladimir Putin? Or could it be the result of jockeying for influence over his war in Ukraine? 

Many observers agree that Ivanov’s legal troubles may hint at an uncertain future for his former boss Shoigu, the defense minister in charge of Putin’s war.

This move against one of his closest allies could point to divisions between rival “clans” in the Russian elite as they compete for influence and riches amid the new realities of a country at war.

“Influential groups vying for power are now attacking each other even more aggressively than before the war, and it’s no longer just lone players or minor representatives of the various clans who are at risk, but central figures too,” Russian journalist Andrey Pertsev wrote in an analysis for Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. 

Pertsev argues that Ivanov’s arrest appeared to have blindsided Shoigu, who was seen at a meeting with him just hours earlier.

Shoigu’s position as defense minister appeared to be in jeopardy in late 2022, after several successful Ukrainian counteroffensives and embarrassing Russian retreats. The failures sparked bitter criticism from Russia’s influential military bloggers, but especially late Wagner mercenary chief Yevgeny Prigozhin, and the spat culminated in Wagner’s armed march on Moscow last June

But the revolt was short-lived and Prigozhin is now dead. Shoigu emerged, eventually, and has thrived since, with the Russian army making advances in the last few months amid delays in Western military aid. 

“I note that Shoigu has regained his position in Putin’s eyes in the last six months to a year and has become noticeably closer to him, quite successfully managing the flow of information that comes to the president about military affairs,” political analyst Tatiana Stanovaya wrote on her Telegram channel the night of Ivanov’s arrest.  

So far, Shoigu has remained silent on the scandal, but he officially dismissed Ivanov from his position the day after his arrest, according to state news agency Tass. As of Monday, Ivanov’s profile was missing from the Defense Ministry’s website.

But little happens in Russia, especially to such high-ranking officials, without at least tacit approval from Putin. 

And the timing of the scandal’s sudden eruption in public seemed notable to many analysts.

Putin will be inaugurated for his fifth presidential term on May 7. A government reshuffle would be expected to come in the days after that, which could be Putin’s chance to bring in new faces or show the door to old ones — like Shoigu.

Moscow's court service says a third man has been detained in a major bribery case involving a Russian deputy defense minister.Russian businessman Alexander Fomin at the Basmanny District Court in Moscow on Thursday.AP

“Ivanov is one of the closest people to Shoigu,” Abbas Gallyamov, a Russian political analyst and former Putin speechwriter, wrote on Telegram. “His arrest on the eve of the appointment of a new government suggests that the chances of the current minister to remain in his chair are sharply declining.”

But others pointed to the fact that Putin — if he really wanted to — could just fire Shoigu at any moment, without the need for a public spectacle of Ivanov’s detention. 

“Even if this is a message for Shoigu, it’s unlikely Putin is ready to dismiss him,” Andrei Kolesnikov, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Russia Eurasia Center, told NBC News. 

This would mean that the war in Ukraine is not going according to plan, Kolesnikov said, and that Putin was wrong about Shoigu.

“Rather, this is a message to the elites — no one is irreplaceable, one has to behave more modestly during our holy war with the West — and to the general public — the regime is fighting corruption not in words, but in deeds,” he added. 

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Russia may not start an all-out war with NATO, but already has plans to destroy it from within

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The era of relative peace and prosperity the West has enjoyed since the end of World War II may fast be coming to an end.

In March, Poland’s Prime Minister, Donald Tusk, said Europe was in a “pre-war” era and that Russia must not defeat Ukraine for the security of the continent.

“I don’t want to scare anyone, but war is no longer a concept from the past,” Tusk said in an interview with several European media outlets. “It is real. In fact, it already started more than two years ago,” referencing the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

It’s one of a series of increasingly stark warnings that the war in Ukraine could be a prelude to a much bigger conflict.

German military planning documents leaked in January imagined Russia launching a massive 2024 offensive to take advantage of waning Western support in Ukraine.

The documents, obtained by Bild, then envisage Russia turning its sights on NATO members in Eastern Europe, with it seeking to destabilize its enemies through cyberattacks and internal chaos in the Baltic states of Estonia, Lithuania, and Latvia.

Germany isn’t the only one. Late last year, Poland’s national security agency estimated that Russia could attack NATO within three years.

The members of the 32-member NATO alliance are each sworn to protect each other from attack under Article 5 of the Washington Treaty. That means a Russian attack on one member could spark a war involving several nuclear-armed states.

But whether Putin really does intend to attack NATO and what an attack might look like remains unclear.

In March, Putin denied having any plans to attack NATO members, describing such claims as “complete nonsense.”

Western military chiefs are not convinced, however. A month earlier, Putin menaced the West with the prospect of a nuclear attack over its support for Ukraine.

He alluded to a recent suggestion by French President Emmanuel Macron that NATO could send troops to Ukraine to support its fight against the Russian invasion.

Analysts told Business Insider that Russia is weakened by the toll of the Ukraine war and in no position to attack the alliance.

But Putin is playing a long game, and the outcome of the Ukraine war and Russia’s long-standing bid to undermine and corrode NATO will be key factors in deciding whether Russia strikes.

Putin plots to corrode NATO

Putin has a key advantage over the West, Philip Ingram, a former UK military intelligence officer, told BI.

While Western leaders plan within election cycles of around four years, Putin is an authoritarian leader with no serious challengers to his power. That means he can look decades ahead.

“He does not want, at this moment, a direct confrontation with NATO,” said Ingram. “But he thinks in a different way and plans in a different way to we do in the West, and therefore the way NATO countries do.”

“So, his ambition in growing is not going to be that he will attack NATO and NATO countries next year. But he will set the conditions to be able to, ” Ingram said.

Analysts like Ingram believe that Putin realizes attacking NATO now would exact a vast and punishing cost on Russia. Instead, Putin will seek to weaken NATO from within to create soft spots he can strike in the future if he chooses.

To do this, Putin will likely intensify Russia’s so-called “hybrid warfare” against NATO countries.

As NATO puts it, hybrid warfare “often plays out in gray zones below the threshold of a conventional war.”

“The instruments or tools employed and fused together to unleash hybrid warfare are often difficult to discern, attribute, and corroborate.”

They can include spreading conspiracy theories and disinformation, boosting extremist parties in certain countries, stoking terror threats, and launching cyber attacks to undermine the foundation of Western societies.

“The threat posed by Russia to NATO is unlikely to be an invasion, it’s more likely to come from a range of other military and non-military threats – what are often called hybrid threats,” Ruth Deyermond, an expert on the Russian military at King’s College London told BI.

A core aim is to prise away the US from its commitment to defend its European allies, either by hoping it gets embroiled in another costly military campaign elsewhere, or tires of the NATO project.

“For this reason, I expect we’ll see Russia using all of the tricks and capabilities in its cupboard to undermine Western unity over the years to come,” Bryden Spurling, an analyst with the RAND Corporation, told BI.

A covert war is already underway

Russia, some point out, is already engaged in a war with NATO, albeit covertly.

Only days ago, a group of men in the UK were accused of conducting arson attacks on a Ukraine-linked business on behalf of Russian intelligence. This is just one example of “hybrid warfare” tactics.

In recent months, Russia has also been accused of being behind the scrambling of GPS plane navigation systems in northern Europe and the Baltics, in what some claim could be part of a “hybrid warfare” attack.

Robert Dover, a professor of international security at the University of Hull in the UK, said the question of whether Russia will attack NATO is already redundant. “Russia is already engaged in a meaningful conflict with NATO countries and their allies,” he pointed out.

The Ukraine war exposed serious limits to NATO’s military power. The alliance has struggled to produce enough artillery shells and ammunition for Ukraine.

During the recent block in US aid, European NATO countries were unable to make up the shortfall, and Ukraine’s forces were being outfired at a rate of 10-one on parts of the front line, which were close to collapse.

The US recently released the aid, but the problems the situation exposed run deep, said Spurling, the RAND analyst. This, he said, is a weakness Russia could seek to exploit if not remedied.

“This conflict has exposed how underprepared Western militaries are for war that’s not on their terms,” he added. “While we maintain that fragility, there is a greater risk that Russia thinks it could chance its arm,” he said.

Russia is weakened by the Ukraine war

Russian military Ukraine

A member of the Ukrainian Territorial Defence Forces walks past destroyed Russian military vehicles in a forest outside Ukraine’s second-biggest city of Kharkiv on March 7, 2022. SERGEY BOBOK

But Russia also faces massive problems of its own. Its military has been devasted by the Ukraine invasion. According to US estimates, its entire pre-war invasion force of around 300,000 men has been killed or injured (though it has replenished those numbers), its stock of armored vehicles has been devastated, and its commanders have made consistently bad decisions.

“It’s hard to imagine a near- or medium-term scenario in which the Russian government has the resources to engage in another war on anything like the scale of Ukraine,” Deyermond, the expert on the Russian military at King’s College London, told BI.

Any potential attack on NATO would come at such a devastating cost it could imperil Putin’s grip on power.

“War with NATO would destroy Russia, as Putin will know very well, and even if he thinks there’s a possibility that the US might not step up to defend a fellow NATO member from a Russian invasion, he shows no sign of wanting to find out by playing nuclear Russian roulette,” said Deyermond.

But however long it takes, Putin is determined to achieve some form of victory in Ukraine so that he can use it as a platform to plan Russia’s next campaign, said Ingram.

After Ukraine, Putin will survey the field and be keen to exploit further opportunities to expand Russian power.

As Ingram puts it: “He wants the Soviet Union back in the hands of a Russian leader, and that’s his ultimate goal.”

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US military pier to begin operations off Gaza as soon as this weekend

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The U.S. military-built pier off the coast of Gaza will be up and running as early as this weekend, and aid is expected to begin flowing into the enclave soon afterward, according to a U.S. official and a European official.

Officials are expected to make a decision on allowing the project to begin operations by Friday, meaning aid could begin flowing to Palestinians as early as Saturday or Sunday, said the U.S. official. However, that timeline could be delayed by environmental factors such as weather or logistical issues, the official cautioned.

Both officials were granted anonymity to discuss dates before they are announced.

Pentagon spokesperson Sabrina Singh said Wednesday that the pier is more than 50 percent complete, but didn’t give a specific date for operations, saying it will be ready to deliver aid into Gaza by early May.

The establishment of the new aid route more directly involves the United States in the war between Israel and Hamas, as it puts American forces off the coast of Gaza to help deliver food, water, medicine and other assistance. The Biden administration has repeatedly said U.S. troops would not step foot inside Gaza, but would instead remain just offshore to ensure the pier can remain safe and continue to function.

The project is a complex one. U.S. military personnel are building the pier a few miles offshore along with a floating causeway that will be anchored to the beach. Commercial ships will first deliver aid to the pier, where the food and supplies will be loaded onto smaller boats operated by the U.S. military, and transported to the causeway. Once there, aid workers from the United Nations will offload, organize and distribute the shipments.

The Israel Defense Forces are providing security for the project. The mission is a dangerous one, as U.S. personnel could come under fire from Hamas or other militants, or sustain accidental damage from Israeli airstrikes. Just last week, Gaza-based militants launched mortar rounds at the marshalling area on shore where U.N. workers plan to organize and distribute the aid.

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@KyivIndependent: Drones operated by Ukraine’s military intelligence agency (HUR) attacked the Ryazan Oil Refinery and a refinery in Voronezh Oblast; Oslo will increase aid to Ukraine by 7 billion Norwegian kroner (about $631 million); and more.…

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Drones operated by Ukraine’s military intelligence agency (HUR) attacked the Ryazan Oil Refinery and a refinery in Voronezh Oblast; Oslo will increase aid to Ukraine by 7 billion Norwegian kroner (about $631 million); and more.

— The Kyiv Independent (@KyivIndependent) May 1, 2024

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Donald Trump’s mystery $50m loan raises questions: Ex-prosecutor

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Donald Trump’s $50 million Chicago loan continues to raise questions about its true nature, the president of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington has said.

In an interview released on April 30, Noah Bookbinder, the head of the watchdog organization and a former federal prosecutor, spoke with Jessica Denson, a presenter on the liberal news site MeidasTouch, about the loan, which he called “a little complicated and pretty weird.”

Barbara Jones, the court-appointed independent monitor of the Trump Organization, previously wrote in a report that Trump’s business managers said the loan never existed, even though it was listed on numerous federal election forms that Trump filed.

Trump borrowed the money from one of his companies in Chicago, according to federal election filings. Newsweek has contacted Donald Trump‘s attorney for comment via email.

trump engoron case

Donald Trump holding a news story at 40 Wall Street in New York following closing arguments in his civil fraud trial on January 11. The judge in the case appointed Barbara Jones to monitor Trump’s…
Donald Trump holding a news story at 40 Wall Street in New York following closing arguments in his civil fraud trial on January 11. The judge in the case appointed Barbara Jones to monitor Trump’s companies. Spencer Platt/Getty Images

“It does raise the question of why because it’s a pretty weird thing to report a very large loan that isn’t real,” Bookbinder said.

“We have some theories about that. In some ways it doesn’t matter because it’s still a crime to lie. But it is pretty strange,” he continued.

According to Bookbinder, the claim that Trump used the loan to avoid paying taxes is “a little complicated.” But one theory that “seems to make a lot of sense” is that Trump “had a very large loan for real estate in Chicago, and he appears to have refinanced it in a way that resulted in some portion of that being forgiven.”

Rather than paying taxes on the forgiven portion of the loan, which is a gain, Trump may have “created a fake loan obligation to mask the fact that loans were actually forgiven, and he should owe quite a lot of money in taxes on it,” he continued.

Bookbinder added that there was a lot of information “suggesting that this loan that he’s reporting is bogus.” He also said that Trump’s lawyers had agreed that Jones was a suitable person to monitor the Trump Organization’s finances; however, now that she has questioned the reason for the Chicago loan, Trump’s lawyers are calling her “biased and unfair.”

After Jones found that Trump had taken out a $50 million loan that might not have existed, she reported it to Judge Arthur Engoron, who had fined Trump $454 million for falsely inflating the value of his assets.

In February, Engoron found Trump, his sons Donald Jr. and Eric, and the Trump Organization liable for a scheme in which the value of Trump’s net worth and assets were unlawfully inflated to obtain more favorable business deals. Trump has maintained his innocence.

In April, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington sent a letter to the FBI and the Department of Justice asking them to investigate whether Trump had falsely reported the $50 million owed to one of his own companies, Chicago Unit Acquisition LLC, as a liability on all nine public financial disclosure reports he filed with the Federal Election Commission and the Office of Government Ethics. Trump filed the disclosure reports between 2015 and 2023, even though the loan “appears to have never existed,” CREW said in the letter.

“It is not clear why Mr. Trump would have reported a non-existent loan as a liability owed to one of his own companies,” the letter continued, “but some reporting suggests that the deal could be part of a tax-avoidance scheme, known as debt parking, that has been used by taxpayers to purchase debt and then leave it in a separately-owned entity rather than incur tax liability on debt which has been forgiven.”

“Others theorize that the loan may be owed to a secret third party,” the letter continued.

CREW wrote in the letter that Engoron had appointed Jones in November 2022 to monitor Trump’s financial statements and financial disclosures after he found that the former president and his co-defendants had a “propensity to engage in persistent fraud by submitting false and misleading Statements of Financial Condition.”

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Newsweek is committed to challenging conventional wisdom and finding connections in the search for common ground.

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