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Another top Russian Defense Ministry official is arrested on bribery charges amid Kremlin shake-up

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A second senior Russian defense official was arrested on bribery charges, officials said Tuesday, days after President Vladimir Putin replaced the defense minister in a Cabinet shake-up that fueled expectations of more such purges.

Lt. Gen. Yury Kuznetsov, the 55-year-old chief of the Defense Ministry’s main personnel directorate, was arrested in a raid early Monday on his suburban Moscow villa, Russian media reported. He was detained on charges of bribery and jailed pending an investigation and trial, according to the Investigative Committee, Russia’s top state criminal investigation agency.

Kuznetsov is accused of accepting an “exceptionally large bribe,” a charge punishable by up to 15 years in prison. The committee alleged he received the bribe in his previous post as head of the military General Staff’s directorate in charge of preserving state secrets, a position he held for 13 years.

In the raid, agents of the Federal Security Service, or FSB, broke down the doors and windows of his home while he was asleep, the reports said, seizing gold coins, luxury items and over 100 million rubles (just over $1 million) in cash.

His wife, who previously worked in several Defense Ministry structures, was also reportedly interrogated.

On Sunday, Putin reshuffled his Cabinet as he starts his fifth term in office, replacing Sergei Shoigu, who served as defense minister for 11 1/2 years, with Andrei Belousov, an economics expert and former deputy prime minister. Putin named Shoigu the secretary of Russia’s Security Council, a role roughly similar to the U.S. national security adviser, replacing Nikolai Patrushev.

Patrushev, a hawkish and powerful member of Putin’s inner circle who held the job for 16 years, was appointed a presidential aide. Alexei Dyumin, the governor of the Tula region and often mentioned as a potential Putin successor, also was named a presidential aide.

Patrushev will oversee Russian shipbuilding industries in his new job, but may later also deal with other duties, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Tuesday.

He rejected notions that Shoigu’s reshuffle represented a demotion, describing his new role as a “very senior job with broad responsibilities.”

While Shoigu, who had personal ties with Putin and accompanied him on vacations in the Siberian mountains over the years, was given a new senior position, the future of his close entourage in the Defense Ministry appeared in doubt under Belousov.

Shoigu’s deputy, Timur Ivanov, was arrested last month on bribery charges and was ordered to remain in custody pending an official investigation. His arrest was widely interpreted as an attack on Shoigu and a possible precursor to his dismissal.

The shake-up appeared to be an attempt to put the defense sector in sync with the rest of the economy and tighten control over soaring military spending amid allegations of rampant corruption in the top military brass.

Speaking Tuesday at the upper house of parliament, Belousov said Putin has given him the task to more closely integrate the defense sector into the national economy.

“It’s not an easy task, it’s comprehensive and primarily implies optimization of military spending,” he said. “First and foremost, optimization means increasing efficiency.”

He credited Shoigu with overseeing the modernization of the military but emphasized the importance of attaining Russia’s goals in Ukraine with minimal casualties.

Belousov also cited the need to increase supplies of modern artillery and missile systems, drones and electronic warfare assets. He said the military would continue bolstering its ranks with volunteers, noting there is no need for another round of mobilization.

A partial mobilization of 300,000 reservists that Putin ordered in fall 2022 amid the military setbacks was widely unpopular, prompting hundreds of thousands to flee abroad to avoid being drafted.

In an apparent jab at Shoigu and his entourage who were widely criticized by pro-Kremlin military bloggers of hiding setbacks in Ukraine from Putin, Belousov said he would proceed from the “ironclad principle: it’s possible to make mistakes but it’s inadmissible to lie.”

Shoigu has been widely seen as a key figure behind Putin’s decision to invade Ukraine in February 2022, and many Russian hawks criticized him for overstating Russian military capabilities.

He and the chief of the General Staff, Gen. Valery Gerasimov, had faced strong criticism from Russian hawks for military setbacks, including the failure to capture Kyiv early in the war and a Russian retreat from northeastern and southern Ukraine later that year.

The shake-up came as Russian troops pressed new offensives, trying to take advantage of a slowdown in Western aid to Ukraine in what many observers see as a decisive moment in the war.

The Kremlin sought to ease widespread bewilderment over choosing an economics expert with no military record as defense minister by emphasizing that Gerasimov, who directs the fighting in Ukraine, has kept his post.

Peskov also dismissed the allegations that the shake-up and the arrests of senior Defense Ministry officials could disorganize the military and affect events in Ukraine.


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The Psychology of the FBI and Police informants – Google Searches – 3.6.24

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from The News And Times.

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Vladimir Putin: Why the Russian president’s skiing joke is not the only part of his speech to hark back to the Soviet era

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Vladimir Putin’s skiing joke may hark back to the Soviet era – but so did a lot of his speech

Warnings of nuclear war fuelled by the Western war-mongers, praise for Russian entrepreneurs and troops serving in Ukraine, a drive to encourage women to have more babies – and health advice to stop drinking and start skiing: it was all there in Vladimir Putin’s annual state of the nation address, which was beamed into Russian households on Thursday morning.

Even those who weren’t at home will not have had an opportunity to miss it: the national address was projected onto large buildings and cinemas opened their doors for free to ensure everyone had access to the two hour speech.

While the speech held few surprises, with plenty of criticism of Western allies and rhetoric which booted morale around the invasion of Ukraine, around half of it was dedicated to more mundane domestic policies such as investment in culture and education and changes to taxation.

He warned that the West was responsible for creating a potential nuclear conflict which could lead to the “destruction of civilisation” and, in an ominous, but not uncharacteristic message, said any countries considering lending their troops to support Ukraine on the war would face “tragic” consequences.

He also praised Russian entrepreneurs who had stepped in to run businesses which replaced western brands which pulled out of Russia after the invasion of Ukraine, such as Starbucks and McDonalds.

When it came to the invasion, Mr Putin unusually moved away from his conventional language of a “special operation” to describe it as a “war”.

“We did not start this war in Donbas,” he insisted, going on to bring out the old trope of his aim to “de-Nazify” Ukraine.

One thing he did not speak about, unsurprisingly, was the death of Alexei Navalny, the opposition politician who died while serving time in a penal colony in Siberia – four years after surviving a poisoning attempt. Mr Navalny’s funeral is due to take place in Moscow on Friday.

In a wider policy sweep, he also tackled Russia’s health problems, including alcohol.

“Everyone remembers the joke: stop drinking and start skiing,” he said, referencing a Soviet-era motto.

I’m not quite sure what the joke is, but it’s probably not bad advice for a nation which, according to the US-based Jamestown Foundation think tank, has increased its alcohol consumption to 2.3 billion litres since the start of the conflict with Ukraine.

However, his skiing joke – which hopefully works better in Russian – was not the only Soviet element to his speech.

A new initiative, Family, will encourage women to have more babies to populate Mother Russia, in an echo of a similar Stalin-era policy, while Mr Putin’s nuclear threats trigger not-too-distant memories of the Cold War era.

There is no doubt Mr Putin will win next month’s elections, he will make sure of it.

But whether returning Russia to Soviet policies will be popular with the country’s citizens, remains to be seen.

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Finally, we have an Israeli-Ukrainian military alliance

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from Taras Kuzio, at The Blogs.

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Russian national with ties to Vladimir Putin arrested in Austin

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from KXAN Austin.

AUSTIN (KXAN) — Vadim Wolfson, a Russian national and current U.S. legal permanent resident, was arrested earlier Thursday in Austin by local federal task force officers, according to court records.

Documents state Wolfson is the founder of Bank Otkritie, formerly one of the largest privately-held banks in Russia, before he moved to the U.S. around 2018.

The arrest came from a federal warrant issued by the Southern District of New York. According to court documents, Wolfson and others have been indicted on federal charges related to violations of the International Emergency Economic Powers Act (IEEPA) and money laundering.

Court documents list two co-defendants, Andrey Kostin, a Russian national who resides in Russia, and a U.S. national residing in New Jersey.

Attorney information for Wolfson wasn’t listed as of Thursday evening. KXAN will update this story when that information becomes available.

Records state the defendants all participated in a scheme using shell companies to own and control assets worth “tens of millions of dollars” to and for the benefit of Kostin, a Russian oligarch who, since 2002, has been the president and chairman of VTB Bank, one of the largest Russian state-owned banking groups.

Among those assets were a luxury home in Aspen, Colorado, which was primarily used by Wolfson, and two luxury superyachts valued at over $135 million, according to the Department of Justice.

In 2018, Kostin was sanctioned and designated a Specially Designated National and put on the Blocked Persons list (“SDN List”) by the U.S. Department of Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (“OFAC”).

“Unless otherwise authorized or exempt, transactions conducted by U.S. persons, including U.S. financial institutions, or occurring in the United States are prohibited if they involve transferring, paying, exporting, withdrawing, or otherwise dealing in the property or interests in property of an entity or individual listed on the SDN List,” documents state.

According to court records, Kostin was made aware that the U.S. was likely going to impose new sanctions that would target Russian oligarchs as a result of the ongoing Russia-Ukraine war.

A news report cited in the court documents state Kostin was aware there was “a high risk his name would be added to a new U.S. list of people close to Vladimir Putin, but that he was unfazed by the prospect.”

The indictment states Wolfson moved to New York around 2018 where he resided at the time but does not specifically reference why Wolfson was in Austin.

KXAN found two property records in Austin listing Wolfson as the owner, a nearly 4.5-acre ranch in southwest Austin purchased by Wolfson in 2020, and a home in west Austin’s affluent Tarrytown neighborhood purchased by Wolfson in 2022.

The two properties are valued at nearly $10 million, according to property records.

According to the DOJ, U.S. Attorney Damian Williams said:

“As alleged, sanctioned oligarch Andrey Kostin and his co-defendants flouted U.S. sanctions to support his exceptionally lavish lifestyle.  Through complex schemes involving shell companies and illicit transactions, Kostin and his associates allegedly laundered funds and illegally made transactions with U.S. currency for the maintenance and enhancement of Kostin’s superyachts and luxury Aspen home, blatantly disregarding U.S. law.  This investigation highlights the collaborative efforts of this Office and our law enforcement partners around the globe to uphold critical sanctions put in place to support our national security goals and hold accountable those who seek to undermine them.

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How an Ex-FBI Informant, Alexander Smirnov, Targeted the Bidens

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Military chief orders internal probes into pre-October 7 failures

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from The Times of Israel.

The Israel Defense Forces will begin probing operational failures in the lead-up to the Hamas terror group’s October 7 massacre, after Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Herzi Halevi decided Monday to not wait until after fighting ends to look into what went wrong, The Times of Israel has learned.

The probes, set to begin in the next few days, are aimed at drawing operational conclusions for the military, and will not look into the policies of the political leadership, avoiding a fight with government leaders who have insisted that investigations wait until after the end of Israel’s war against Hamas.

Commanders of units seen as having a role in failing to notice Hamas preparations or adequately prepare for Hamas’s October 7 onslaught will investigate what went wrong and how such blunders can be avoided in the future.

Included are the Operations Directorate, Southern Command, Gaza Division, and Military Intelligence Directorate’s Unit 8200, which deals with signals intelligence.

Some 3,000 Hamas-led terrorists burst from the Gaza Strip into southern Israel on October 7, carrying out a murderous rampage of unprecedented intensity and breadth. The IDF struggled to mount a response, with bases closest to the border overrun and the chain of command seemingly broken amid the chaos.

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The onslaught claimed the lives of some 1,200 people in Israel, with another 253 people kidnapped and much of the area devastated. Most victims were civilians.

In response, Israel launched a military campaign aimed at destroying Hamas and winning the freedom of hostages, over 100 of whom remain in captivity.

Gazans celebrate by a destroyed Israeli tank at the broken Israel-Gaza border fence, east of Khan Younis, October 7, 2023. (AP Photo/Yousef Masoud)

The investigations are internal and are not related to planned external probes of the army’s conduct in the lead-up to October 7, which are currently on hold. Plans for the independent review were met with protests from government leaders, who apparently feared they could be criticized.

In late January, Halevi said the external investigation would only be launched once the internal probes were completed.

The probes decided on Monday are expected to last several months, and will be carried out concurrent with ongoing fighting in the Gaza Strip. Any major developments in the war are expected to slow the pace of the probes.

State Comptroller Matanyahu Englman also has plans to investigate the army’s failures as well as the conduct of the government, although Halevi has requested that this also be put on hold for now.

In a letter to Englman, Halevi warned that “the audit will divert the attention of the commanders from the fighting, will damage operational investigation ability, and will not allow drawing necessary lessons to achieve the goals of the war.”

Troops operating in the Gaza Strip in an undated photo released February 20, 2024 (Israel Defense Forces)

Along with announcing the probes, Halevi also ordered that appointments for senior commanders resume after they had been on pause since October 7, according to information received by The Times of Israel.

In the coming weeks, the chief of staff plans to promote officers to the ranks of brigadier generals and colonels and post them as division commanders, brigade commanders, and senior department heads.

At a further date, discussions will be held for the appointments of lieutenant colonels and majors.

The IDF will not be appointing new commanders to roles considered sensitive and related to the probes.

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The TRUTH is the Solution and the Healer. It will set free both the Arabs and the Jews.

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from The News And Times.

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Revealed: Brutally violent Venezuelan ‘Tren de Aragua’ gang is using migrant wave to launch NYC phone robbery spree

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It’s a crime wave that has raised fears across the city: robbers on mopeds snatching people’s phones from their hands and speeding off.

In one especially brazen attack, moped-riding bandits dragged a 62-year-old woman down a Brooklyn street in December.

After the phones are stolen, the victims’ bank accounts are drained of cash, with fraudulent transactions in both the US and South America, and the phones themselves are sent to Colombia to be wiped, reprogrammed and sold.

Now The Post can disclose that the pattern of robberies is being linked by law enforcement to a brutal Venezuelan gang that is sending its members to New York as part of the migrant wave — and using its sprawling criminal empire to launder the proceeds of the crimes.

Until recent weeks, police had been concerned about rises in thefts and robberies in the city — such as a spate of pickpocketing on the subway system and around the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree — being linked to low-level, unorganized criminals who were among the estimated 170,000 migrants who have arrived in the city since the start of 2023.

But sources tell The Post that the brutal Venezuelan “Tren de Aragua” gang has moved into New York by having its members cross the southern border and claim asylum, and is likely behind many of the moped robberies.

It is the only new gang so far being tracked among the new migrant arrivals in the city, sources say.

The NYPD so far has not discussed the gang publicly — but at a briefing last week, senior officers described a pattern of moped robberies which The Post is told have the hallmarks of Tren de Aragua.

Separately, sources told The Post last Saturday there were concerns that a gang that assaulted two police officers in Times Square could be linked to Tren de Aragua. It was unclear whether a 15-year-old Venezuelan arrested Friday over the Times Square shooting of a tourist has ties to the gang.

Last month, a suspect believed to be connected to Tren de Aragua was arrested after the brutal murder of a retired Venezuelan police officer, who was lured to his death in Miami by a group of prostitutes.

And in Chicago, the Cook County Sheriff’s Department intelligence division has been revealed by NBC5 Chicago to be tracking its presence in the city.

South American crime lords

Tren de Aragua, meaning Aragua Train, started in 2012 among trade union members in the Aragua province of Venezuela who turned a planned railroad into an opportunity for grift, and has exploded since into a violent gang involved in robberies, drug dealing and human trafficking across South America.

The Venezuelan government officially sees it as a criminal enterprise and sent in 11,000 soldiers on September 23 last year to take back a prison under the gang’s control in Tocorón, in the country’s interior.

But, The Post is told, its members have also been used as enforcers for the Cartel of the Suns drug-trafficking network, which the US Department of Justice alleges is run by Venezuelan strongman Nicolas Maduro from his presidential palace in Caracas.

They have established presences in Colombia, Peru, Brazil and Chile under leader Niño Guerrero (“Warrior Kid”), whose real name is Héctor Rusthenford Guerrero Flores and who escaped the prison raid safely along with around 80 other senior leaders.

Their violent practices have shocked even the most hardened in South America, particularly their willingness to kill women.

Ammon Blair, a former US Border Patrol agent and senior fellow at the Texas Public Policy Foundation, a conservative think tank, said, “They go into local economies where there are Venezuelans and take over the criminal underground using excessive force.

“They’ll start shooting prostitutes controlled by rival gangs and perform the executions live on social media in order to establish their presence.”

In Colombia in January, a series of brutal murders saw people lured to hotel rooms by Tren de Arauga members, tortured and killed, with their ordeals recorded for other gang members. One young man was tied hand and foot, choked with a cable and beaten with a hammer before being shot.

The gang’s leader in Colombia, José Manuel Vera, calls himself “Satan,” and was arrested after trying to extort businesses in a series of towns, with bloodthirsty demands sent in WhatsApp voice notes.

When the owners did not pay up, their employees were kidnapped, tortured and dismembered, their body parts bound in tarps and dumped outside the businesses.

In Lima, Peru, last February, a transgender prostitute was shot point-blank 31 times and the murder put on social media — a warning that Tren de Aragua now ran city’s the sex trade. It was the start of a bloodbath: Twenty-four Lima prostitutes were murdered in 2023, apparently by the gang.

In Chile, dismembered victims’ bones have been found in cement at building sites, and the country’s prosecutor held crisis talks with his Colombian counterpart about the gang’s threat to law and order.

Exploiting the border

Gang members began making their way from Venezuela to the southern US border in 2017, Blair told The Post.

That year, there were nearly 2,800 “encounters” with Venezuelan migrants at the border, according to US Customs and Border Protection statistics.

But from October 2022 to September 2023, more than 334,000 Venezuelans crossed the border — second only to 735,000 Mexicans — with Tren de Aragua playing a key part in trafficking many from Venezuela.

“When they crossed the border into Colombia, they began to control everyone’s passage, charging fees to other Venezuelans to make the crossing,” said Robert Almonte, a security consultant and former US marshal in El Paso.

Border Patrol agents apprehended 41 Tren de Aragua members crossing the border between October 2022 and September 2023, according to US Customs and Border Protection.

The only signs that they belong to the ruthless group are tattoos featuring rifles and skulls, Almonte said — although they have started telling new members not to get tattoos in order to evade police.

They also favor tattoos of silhouetted basketball players and basketball jerseys emblazoned with Michael Jordan’s and LeBron James’ number, 23 — a reference to the date of the prison raid.

Alamonte said the group is so brazen that a Texas state anti-gang task force recently documented them charging fellow Venezuelans to use federal toilet facilities at the border.

Recruiting in NYC’s shelters

Tren de Aragua members are among the arrivals in New York, but also use the surge of new migrants at shelters in the city to recruit criminals.

The NYPD’s chief of detectives, Joseph Kenny, revealed last week how cops had busted one set of moped bandits — and although he did not say they were from Tren de Aragua, sources told The Post that the pattern is exactly how the Venezuelan gang has been operating in South American cities.

Kenny said last Monday 62 robberies in the city since November 2023, 34 of them in Manhattan, had been linked to the single group of at least 14 people, who used two-man moped crews to snatch victims’ phones and, because the majority of victims were women, purses.

Most of the robbers were living in the migrant shelters, and had received orders via WhatsApp from a mastermind whom Kenny identified as Victor Parra, a 30-year-old Venezuelan migrant who arrived last year.

“Parra will send out specific orders for what type of phone he is looking for,” Kenny said.

“Once the messages are received, the crime wave begins, with the scooter operators making $100 a day and the actual phone snatcher making between $300 to $600 per phone that is stolen.”

Sources told The Post that the pattern matched how Tren de Aragua operates in South America, with gang members recruiting among young men — in New York’s case, in migrant shelters — and using stolen scooters to move around the city.

Because Tren de Aragua is involved in human trafficking, gang recruiters may also have phone numbers for many of the migrants who come to New York, allowing them to blast mass WhatsApp messages to scores or hundreds of people at a time.

Turning phones into ‘gold’

Kenny said the stolen phones had been taken to alleged mastermind Parra’s home — a NYCHA apartment in the Parkside Houses in the Bronx — where a “hacker” drained them of cash. A raid early last Monday uncovered 22 stolen phones and victims’ IDs.

But the actual robbers play a crucial part. The driver maneuvers the moped and the grabber latches onto a phone, wrenching it from the victim — who, crucially, is using it at the time.

Phone in hand, the grabber, riding on the back of the bike, then stops the phone from locking.

“He may keep tapping it,” Jonathan S. Weissman, cybersecurity professor at Rochester Institute of Technology, told The Post. “Or else he can set the phone to ‘never’ on auto-lock. That way, the thieves keep it alive without needing to tap the screen.”

Once the phones are delivered to the safe house, the hackers get to work, hunting for bank accounts, payment apps and credit cards. 

According to experts, they can change codes, making it difficult for victims to stop the speedy ransacking of their accounts. Having stolen IDs from purses also helps them hack.

“Most of the security codes can be reset via SMS,” Jayson E. Street, chief adversarial officer for Secure Yetti, told The Post. “You communicate to the apps that you forgot your passcodes. They can then be reset by putting in the verification codes that are sent to the phone.”

The hacked phones can be exceptionally valuable. “The apps are used to make illegal transactions and fraudulent purchases in the United States and South America,” said the NYPD’s Kenny.

With money drained or the accounts frozen by the victim, the phone is still valuable: It is shipped to Colombia, Kenny said.

Sources told The Post that Tren de Aragua has a network carrying out the work, with phones wiped by its operatives in Bogotá, then sold across South America.

Said Weissman, “It’s the equivalent of melting down stolen gold.”

‘Ghost’ criminals

At the NYPD’s press conference, Kenny warned that the robbery gangs were “ghosts”: “No criminal history, no photos, no cellphone, no social media. Sometimes we’re even unclear on a name or a date of birth.”

Of the 14 identified as being in the robbery gang, cops so far have arrested seven, and Varra remains on the run.

NYPD sources said migrants have exploited the ID NYC scheme by getting different IDs at the Roosevelt and Floyd Bennett Field shelters.

Statistics show robberies up 9% citywide in 2024, from 1,164 to 1,278, compared to the same period in 2023, and up 14% on the same period in 2022.

Grand larcenies — theft of more than $1,000, which would include mobile phones that were drained of cash — were also up 1.6%, to 3,726, for the four weeks ending February 4, compared to 3,666 for the same four weeks in 2023.

But Tren de Aragua’s biggest ghost is its leader, Niño Guerrero. An Interpol “red notice,” requesting his arrest, warns that the mastermind’s whereabouts are unknown.

Among the countries he could be in: the United States.

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How to Think Like a CIA Analyst

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from Book Reviews Archive – The Cipher Brief.

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