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Russian Firm Ran Extensive Disinformation Campaign in Sudan

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  • A Russian company linked to an oligarch close to Vladimir Putin launched an extensive campaign to spread misinformation and encourage violence against anti-government protestors in Sudan.
  • Russia has economic and military interests in Sudan, which is a key foothold for them in Africa.
  • The Kremlin also had close ties to former Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir, who was overthrown by a military coup on April 11.

Sudan Protest Timeline

A Russian company connected to an oligarch with ties to the Kremlin developed a strategy to stop anti-government protests in Sudan through disseminating disinformation and advocating for violence, according to documents reviewed by CNN.

In December, anti-government protests broke out all across Sudan over steep price hikes and shortages. The demonstrators initially called for economic reforms, but quickly shifted to calls for the Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir, who had been in power for 30 years, to step down.

The protests continued over the next few months. In response, security forces launched a violent crackdown that killed dozens of people and led to thousands of arrests.

Then, towards the end of February, al-Bashir escalated these efforts. He declared a state of emergency and banned all unauthorized gathering. He also dissolved the federal and provincial governments to install security forces, essentially giving them a blank check to end the protests at all costs. After the state of emergency was declared, the protests slowed, but they did not stop.

However, the protests gained momentum again in April after the Algerian president Abdelaziz Bouteflika, who had held power for 20 years, resigned following similar demonstrations in his country. The Sudanese protests reached a tipping point on April 6, when demonstrators staged a huge multi-day protest outside the military’s headquarters, which is near the presidential residence in the capital city Khartoum.

Again, these protestors were met with violence and arrests from security forces, but the sit-in at military headquarters worked.

On April 11, al-Bashir was removed from power by a military coup and arrested. A military council was installed to oversee a transition of power that the military says will last at most two years. Demonstrators have demanded that the military ruler hand over power to a civilian-led government immediately.

The Russian Campaign

The documents reviewed by CNN shed light on the extent of Russian involvement in al-Bashir’s violent crackdown.

CNN reported that they received the documents from a London-based firm called the Dossier Center and that they included several thousand letters and internal company communications. The documents originate from a Russian-based company called M-Invest that has an office in Khartoum.

According to those documents, M-Invest drew up plans to “discredit and suppress” the protests in Sudan as part of an effort to keep al-Bashir in power. This effort included: “spreading misinformation on social media, blaming Israel for fomenting the unrest, and even carrying out public executions to make an example of ‘looters,’” according to CNN.

CNN stated that the documents were credible and consistent with witnesses who have said they saw Russian “observers” at recent protests. They also said that multiple government and military sources in Khartoum have confirmed to CNN that al-Bashir’s government had received the plans and began to act on them before he was ousted.

One document from January suggested creating fake evidence “of arson by protesters against mosques, hospitals and nurseries, [and] stealing grain from the public store.”  It also proposed portraying the demonstrators as “enemies of Islam and traditional values”— which is the majority religion in Sundan– by planting LGBT flags around them.

Source: CNN

Other recommendations from M-Invest found in the documents included arresting protest leaders the day before demonstrations were set to occur, creating social media teams and accounts to attack the protests, and spreading disinformation saying that demonstrators were being paid to protest.

M-Invest even went as far as advocating for “public executions of looters and other spectacular events to distract the protest-minded audience.”

Ties to Putin & The Russian Government

The documents did not find that Russian security agencies were directly involved in the campaign, but the implicit connections between M-Invest and the Russian government are significant.

The Russian oligarch tied to M-Invest, Yevgeny Prigozhin, is known as “Putin’s Chef” because he held catering contracts with the Krelim. It is unclear exactly how Prigozhin is tied to M-Invest, with some reports saying he is the founder, while others have said the company represents his interests.

What is clear is his involvement in the campaign against the protests. CNN specifically referenced two letters from Prigozhin regarding the protests. The first letter, from March 17, stated that the Sudanese government’s “inaction” to stop the protests had “provoked the intensification of the crisis.”

Source: CNN

In the second letter, from April 6, praised Prigozhin praised al-Bashir as a “wise and far-sighted leader.”

Additionally, M-Invest’s relationship with Sudan goes back farther than just the protests. According to CNN, a letter from June 2018 written by M-Invest on behalf of Sudan’s Military Industrial Corporation to push closer military links with Russia was sent to the chief of the Russian armed forces.

Source: CNN

CNN also saw a contract between M-Invest and the Russian Defense Ministry for the use of transport aircraft. One of those planes was known to have been used by al-Bashir.

In addition to his ties to Sudan, Prigozhin was one of 13 Russians charged in Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian election interference. Prigozhin has been accused of financing and directing efforts by the Russian firm Internet Research Agency, which was one of the main Russian firms that used fake social media accounts to spread disinformation in an attempt to influence the 2016 election. He has denied any involvement in the election or any connection to the Internet Research Agency.

Why Did Russia Do It?

Russia’s keen interest in Sudan stems from its geographic location. Sudan is a key place for Russia to spread its influence in Africa. Russia currently has a mix of private and state interests in Sudan that benefit both oligarchs and the Russian government. These interests give Russia a strategic foothold in the region.

Additionally, Russia has been considering developing a naval base at Port Sudan in order to counter recent efforts by both the United States and China to establish a military presence in the region– another fact that was confirmed in the Dossier documents.

Over the years, al-Bashir pursued a close relationship with the Kremlin. He first visited Moscow in 2017, and Russia also supplied fighter jets to Sudan right before that meeting.

Russia has placed a big bet on al-Bashir, which meant they had a vested interest in keeping him installed as the president. When anti-regime protests started gaining momentum, Russia’s foothold and interests in the country, and thus in the region as a whole, were threatened.

See what others are saying: (The Washington Post) (Al Jazeera) (BBC)

International

India Pedestrian Bridge Collapsed 4 Days After Renovations, Killing Over 100 People

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The company responsible for the upkeep of the Morbi bridge did not obtain a safety certificate before re-opening.


Bridge Collapses

After seven months of renovations, the Morbi walking bridge in India opened to the public. Four days later, the bridge collapsed, killing more than 130 people. 

According to the local government, there were about 200 people on the bridge when it collapsed on Sunday, despite its capacity of 125. 

During a campaign event on Monday, India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi said the state government had set up a committee to investigate the tragedy.

“I assure the people of the country that there will be nothing lacking in the relief and rescue efforts,” he stated.

Along with the investigation, the state has launched a criminal complaint against Oreva Group, the company responsible for maintaining the bridge. Oreva Group reopened the bridge after renovations without getting a safety certificate from the government. 

Shifting Blame

In response, Oreva Group spoke to a local news outlet and blamed those on the bridge for its collapse.

“While we are waiting for more information, prima facie, the bridge collapsed as too many people in the mid-section of the bridge were trying to sway it from one way to the other,” the group claimed.

The state government has offered compensation for the families of the deceased, but that is not enough for some. One father whose wife and two children died in the collapse told VICE he wants answers and accountability.

“Why were so many people given tickets? Who allowed them? Who is answerable?” he asked.

Indian police have arrested nine people including ticketing clerks and security guards for failing to regulate the crowd, according to Reuters. 

See what others are saying: (Reuters) (VICE) (CNN)

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International

Xi Jinping Tightens Grip on China by Eliminating Rivals

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Despite the staggering power grab, Xi faces geopolitical competition from abroad as well as social and economic instability at home.


Xi Surrounds Himself With Allies

Chinese President Xi Jinping shook up politics over the weekend when he revealed the government’s new leadership, almost exclusively composed of his own hardline loyalists.

Six men — Li Qiang, Zhao Leji, Wang Huning, Cai Qi, Ding Xuexiang, and Li Xi — will form the Politburo Standing Committee, China’s top ruling body.

The four new members are all Xi loyalists, pushing out Premier Li Keqiang and the head of China’s top advisory body Wang Yang, two key party figures outside Xi’s inner circle who retired despite being eligible to serve another term.

For the first time in a quarter-century, China’s 24-member Politburo will be made up entirely of men, underlining the exclusion of women from Chinese politics.

An official account of the selection process said that a top criterion for leadership was loyalty to Xi, and rising officials must stay in lockstep with him “in thinking, politics and action.”

Topping off the developments, Xi officially secured an unprecedented third term as leader, something that was only made possible in 2018 when the government abolished term limits on the presidency. The weekend marked China’s greatest consolidation of political power in a single figure in decades.

As the 20th Communist Party Congress came to a close Saturday, China’s former leader Hu Jintao appeared reluctant as he was suddenly and inexplicably escorted from his seat next to Xi out of the Great Hall of the People.

Some commentators have argued that a tightly knit band of yes men may help Xi fend off internal party dissent, but it could ultimately result in poor governance as his subordinates fear giving him bad news.

The Arc of History Bends Toward China

Despite the extreme concentration of political power, China’s Communist Party stares down a gauntlet of challenges both foreign and domestic.

Beijing remains locked in a strategic competition with Washington, which has sought to contain the East Asian rival’s rise as a global superpower, but the past week’s congress may portend a stubbornly defiant China for years to come.

Xi is expected to use his firmly secure position within the party to pursue his agenda in full force — by strengthening Beijing’s claim over Taiwan, expanding China’s economic foothold in developing countries, and achieving self-sufficiency in strategic technologies such as semiconductors.

At home, China’s economy has faltered during the pandemic, with high unemployment, low consumption, and slow economic growth putting pressure on a government that stakes much of its legitimacy on promises to deliver prosperity to the population. Between July and September, the country’s GDP grew by 3.9%, according to official data released Monday, which is above many analysts’ expectations but still far below the state’s target of around 5.5%.

China’s National Bureau of Statistics postponed the data’s publication last week ahead of the 20th party congress, reinforcing concerns that Xi’s leadership will put politics before economics.

Monday’s announcement roiled stock markets, with Hong Kong’s Hang Seng Index plunging 6%, as well as the Shanghai Composite and the Shenzhen Composite Index both falling by about 2%.

Beijing has also seen increased political resistance from the population, from anti-lockdown protests in Shanghai to widespread mortgage boycotts over delays from real estate developers.

Last week, a man unfurled two large banners from an overpass in Beijing and called President Xi a “dictator” through a megaphone.

Such small-scale demonstrations are not new, but they took place in the capital just before the congress drew enough attention for photos of the stunt to go viral on social media, where an equally swift censorship campaign stamped out any mention of it.

See what others are saying: (The New York Times) (CNN) (The Washington Post)

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Elon Musk Walks Back Threat to Cut Ukraine’s Starlink Internet Service

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Although the satellites have been invaluable for Ukrainian military operations, outages have left soldiers without communication devices in recent weeks.


Let Them Eat Satellites

SpaceX founder Elon Musk said on Saturday that his company would continue funding internet service for Ukraine after declaring that he would have no choice but to cut it off the day prior.

“The hell with it,” he tweeted. “Even though Starlink is still losing money & other companies are getting billions of taxpayer $, we’ll just keep funding Ukraine govt for free.”

It wasn’t immediately clear whether the often jocular billionaire was being sarcastic, but in response to another Twitter user he said, “We should still do good deeds.”

SpaceX’s Starlink satellites help the Ukrainian military operate drones, receive intelligence updates and communicate out in the field, which is vital since many regular internet and cellular phone networks have been destroyed by Russia.

At least 20,000 satellite terminals have been donated to Ukraine since the spring, but SpaceX has footed the bill for a small minority of them. According to a letter the company sent to the Pentagon last month, around 85% of the terminals were paid for in part or in full by the United States, Poland, and other entities, who also covered some 30% of the internet connectivity.

SpaceX claimed in the letter that Starlink services for Ukraine would cost over $120 million for the rest of the year and nearly $400 million for the next 12 months.

“We are not in a position to further donate terminals to Ukraine, or fund the existing terminals for an indefinite period of time,” it said.

The company, therefore, requested that the Pentagon take over funding for the satellite terminals.

Earlier this month, Musk claimed on Twitter that Ukraine’s Starlink services had cost SpaceX $80 million so far.

On Friday, following CNN’s publication of the SpaceX letter, Musk reaffirmed that his company “cannot fund the existing system indefinitely, *and* send several thousand more terminals that have data usage up to 100X greater than typical households.”

He added, however, that it was not seeking to recoup past expenses.

On Monday, Politico reported that the Pentagon is considering paying for the Starlink satellite network from a fund that has been used to supply weapons and equipment over the long term, according to two U.S. officials who are involved in the deliberations.

Starlink Leaves Ukraine’s Soldiers Stranded

Ukrainian troops experienced “catastrophic” outages in their Starlink communication devices in recent weeks, according to a Financial Times report earlier this month.

The services reportedly stopped functioning at critical moments, such as when soldiers breached the front lines into Russian-controlled territory or engaged in pitched battles.

“They were acute in the south around the Kherson and Zaporizhzhia regions, but also occurred along the frontline in eastern Kharkiv, Donetsk and Luhansk,” an official told the outlet.

Last month, Russian President Vladimir Putin claimed to annex all four regions and held referendums widely considered to be a sham justification for his conquest of the Donbas.

The regions are also the focus of a massive Ukrainian counteroffensive that has sent Russian troops scrambling in recent weeks.

One Starlink donor reportedly believed the outages were a result of SpaceX’s efforts to block Russian forces from misusing Starlink terminals.

As Ukrainian soldiers liberated Russian-occupied territory, the sources said, public announcements of their gains lagged behind, and so did Starlink’s coverage.

Another official told the outlet that connection failures were widespread and led to panicked calls from soldiers to helplines.

Musk responded to the report by tweeting, “As for what’s happening on the battlefield, that’s classified.”

See what others are saying: (The New York Times) (CNN) (Financial Times)

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