Last week in international authoritarianism
Our weekly roundup of the assaults on freedom taking place around the world. Stay up to date on the global fights for democracy.
A member of Russia’s Federal Protective Service, or FSO, recently defected to the West and is sharing what he knows with Western intelligence agencies and the media. What he’s described so far is an increasingly paranoid and isolated Russian leader who the defector, Gleb Karakulov describes as a “war criminal.”
Erika Kinetz writes for the AP:
On Oct. 14, a Russian engineer named Gleb Karakulov boarded a flight from Kazakhstan to Turkey with his wife and daughter. He switched off his phone to shut out the crescendo of urgent, enraged messages, said goodbye to his life in Russia and tried to calm his fast-beating heart.
But this was no ordinary Russian defector. Karakulov was an officer in President Vladimir Putin’s secretive elite personal security service — one of the few Russians to flee and go public who have rank, as well as knowledge of intimate details of Putin’s life and potentially classified information.
Karakulov, who was responsible for secure communications, said moral opposition to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and his fear of dying there drove him to speak out, despite the risks to himself and his family. He said he hoped to inspire other Russians to speak out also.
“Our president has become a war criminal,” he said. “It is time to end this war and stop being silent.”
Putin has set up identical offices in multiple locations, with matching details down to the desk and wall hangings, and official reports sometimes say he’s one place when he is actually in another, according to Karakulov and prior reporting by a Russian media outlet. When Putin was in Sochi, security officials would deliberately pretend he was leaving, bringing in a plane and sending off a motorcade, when he was in fact staying, Karakulov said.
“The guys would talk about this, really laughing,” he said. “I think that this is an attempt to confuse, first, intelligence, and second, so that there are no assassination attempts.”
Karakulov said he couldn’t tell his parents about his disillusionment either, because their minds had been molded by years of watching Russian state television.
As the war streamed in on the evening news, his parents seemed to savor the view from the front. He found it unbearable and asked his mother to turn off the TV. She refused.
He said he tried to explain to her that Ukraine is an independent country, but she immediately cut him off. “What is this?” she said to him. “You want to run away? Are you some kind of foreign agent?”
He never told them he was leaving.
In other news that’s bad for the Russian government, Finland officially became the newest member of NATO.
Finland’s NATO membership guarantees the northern European nation access to the resources of the entire alliance in the event of attack.
It includes the protection offered by NATO’s Article 5 principle, which states that an attack on one member of NATO is an attack on all members. It’s been a cornerstone of the 30-member alliance since it was founded in 1949 as a counterweight to the Soviet Union.
NATO membership also better integrates Finnish forces in training and planning with NATO allies.
The country is no stranger to working with NATO, with its troops regularly participating in NATO exercises under a partner status.
The Finnish Defense Force also operate some of the same weapons systems as other NATO members, including US-made F/A-18 fighters, German-designed Leopard main battle tanks and K9 Howitzers used by Norway and Estonia among others.
Helsinki has also signed on the F-35 stealth fighter program, which will allow its air force to work smoothly with NATO members including the US, UK, Norway, Italy, Canada, Poland, Denmark and the Netherlands.
A November report from the Washington-based Wilson Center lists three key areas where Finland benefits NATO: reserve forces, technology access and artillery forces.
“Finland’s artillery forces are the largest and best-equipped in western Europe,” the report said.
“With some 1,500 artillery weapons, including 700 Howitzer guns, 700 heavy mortar, and 100 rocket launcher systems, the Finnish artillery has more artillery firepower than the combined militaries of Poland, Germany, Norway, and Sweden can currently muster,” it said.
The Wilson Center report also noted Finland’s strong cyber security record, pointing out the country is home to Nokia, “a major provider of 5G infrastructure,” and one of three major providers of 5G infrastructure in the world, along with Sweden’s Ericsson and China’s Huawei.
And it said Finland can muster 900,000 reserves who have been trained as conscripts in its armed forces. The wartime strength of Finnish forces is 280,000 troops, it says.
Despite what you may have heard, Joe Biden is pushing back on China, and the Chinese government is not happy about it.
Joe McDonald writes for the AP:
Furious at U.S. efforts that cut off access to technology to make advanced computer chips, China’s leaders appear to be struggling to figure out how to retaliate without hurting their own ambitions in telecoms, artificial intelligence and other industries.
President Xi Jinping’s government sees the chips that are used in everything from phones to kitchen appliances to fighter jets as crucial assets in its strategic rivalry with Washington and efforts to gain wealth and global influence. Chips are the center of a “technology war,” a Chinese scientist wrote in an official journal in February.
China has its own chip foundries, but they supply only low-end processors used in autos and appliances. The U.S. government, starting under then-President Donald Trump, is cutting off access to a growing array of tools to make chips for computer servers, AI and other advanced applications. Japan and the Netherlands have joined in limiting access to technology they say might be used to make weapons.
Xi, in unusually pointed language, accused Washington in March of trying to block China’s development with a campaign of “containment and suppression.” He called on the public to “dare to fight.”
Despite that, Beijing has been slow to retaliate against U.S. companies, possibly to avoid disrupting Chinese industries that assemble most of the world’s smartphones, tablet computers and other consumer electronics. They import more than $300 billion worth of foreign chips every year.
Washington threw up new hurdles for Chinese chip designers in August by imposing restrictions on software known as EDA, or electronic design automation, along with European, Asian and other governments to limit the spread of “dual use” technologies that might be used to make weapons.
In December, Biden added YMTC, the memory chip maker, and some other Chinese companies to a blacklist that limits access to chips made anywhere using U.S. tools or processes.
China’s foundries can etch circuits as small as 28 nanometers apart. By contrast, TSMC and other global competitors can etch circuits just three nanometers apart, ten times the Chinese industry’s precision. They are moving toward two nanometers.
To make the latest chips, “you need EUV (extreme ultraviolet lithography) tools, a very complicated process recipe and not just a couple of billion dollars but tens and tens of billions of dollars,” said Peter Hanbury, who follows the industry for Bain & Co.
“They’re not going to be able to produce competitive server, PC and smartphone chips,” Hanbury said. “You have to go to TSMC to do that.”
China’s ruling party is trying to develop its own tool vendors, but researchers say it is far behind a global network spread across dozens of countries.
Chinese leader Xi Jinping has called for another round of peace negotiations after speaking with French President Emmanuel Macron. I mention this mostly in passing because there’s no indication China is willing to change their positions on their so-called peace proposal. Xi has thus far refused to speak with Zelensky, and the Chinese leader only offers terms which are incredibly pro-Kremlin in nature. Relatedly, this past week, the EU publicly denounced Xi for consistently siding with the Russian President.
China and Taiwan
Anyone who follows me knows I’m no fan of Kevin McCarthy, but in this case, some credit where it’s due. No, there is no real chance of significant pushback from the rest of the GOP for showing support for Taiwan right now, but displays of unity are important nonetheless. The stakes are high. China is growing increasingly belligerent. I can only hope McCarthy shows similar conviction when it comes to supporting the Ukrainian war effort!
John Ruwitch and Emily Feng write for NPR:
Taiwan's President Tsai Ing-wen vowed Wednesday to "defend the peaceful status quo" in which the people of Taiwan can continue to thrive in a free and open society. Her remarks came after a meeting with House Speaker Kevin McCarthy that Beijing had warned against.
Speaking in a joint appearance with McCarthy before a bipartisan group of U.S. lawmakers at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library outside Los Angeles, the Taiwanese leader also thanked the U.S. for its support to Taiwan.
The "unwavering support," Tsai said, "reassures the people of Taiwan that we are not isolated, we are not alone."
For Taiwan, Tsai's stop in California and her meeting with McCarthy serve as reassurance that the U.S. — by far the island's most important partner, even though it does not officially recognize Taipei — remains firmly supportive of the island. She is due to step down next year and will not seek reelection.
"Tsai's trip is not simply a 'graduation trip' [as she finishes her term]. It is definitely an assist for raising the foreign diplomacy of Taiwan," says Lin Ying Yu, an international relations professor at Taiwan's Tamkang University.
"Although sometimes the U.S. will make some so-called concessions and interact with China, Tsai's meeting with McCarthy shows the U.S. will stick to its bottom lines and will not let China manipulate it on cross-strait issues," says Lin.
These reassurances will be reinforced later this week, when a bipartisan U.S. congressional delegation led by House Foreign Affairs Committee Chair Michael McCaul is due to meet with Tsai on Saturday in Taipei, the day after she returns from her meeting with McCarthy.
Protests in Iran continue as those brave Iranians seeking freedom marked the anniversary of an anti-government protestor who was shot dead near his home one year ago.
Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty writes:
Protesters took to the streets of the Shahr-e Ziba neighborhood west of the Iranian capital, Tehran, late on April 5 to mark the birthday of Hamid Reza Ruhi, who was killed in the brutal state crackdown on anti-government protests sparked by the death in custody of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini following her detention by the morality police.
Ruhi, a 19-year-old university student, was reportedly shot dead near his home in Tehran on November 18.
Amateur videos posted online on April 5 showed protesters chanting antiestablishment slogans, including “Death to the dictator” and “Hamidreza is not dead, it is Seyed Ali [Khamenei] who is dead,” while also calling for “freedom, freedom.”
More than 500 people, including children, have been killed in Iran’s crackdown on antiestablishment protests, rights groups have reported. An estimated 20,000 have been arrested.
Iran's judiciary has warned of harsh sentences for those found guilty of crimes during the protests, and so far at least four people have been executed in connection with the unrest.
The protests that rocked the country for several months have become one of the biggest threats to the Islamic republic since the 1979 revolution.
Iranian leaders have blamed the country’s foreign enemies -- especially the United States and Israel -- for the unrest.
Meanwhile, Hungary’s illiberal leader Viktor Orbán continues to stand with Donald Trump. Both men are united in the boogeyman status they’ve given to George Soros, their hatred of the free press and judges who attempt to check their naked power grabs. This is quite a natural fit.
Unfortunately, Orbán wasn’t alone. Mexico’s President also waded into the fray in defense of Donald Trump. How does he know the Manhattan DA’s charges are simply political, exactly?
Since we’re on the topic of corrupt anti-Democratic leaders who refused to accept their presidential election losses, here’s the latest on Jair Bolsonaro.
As I’ve written about before, Republicans love El Salvador’s president, but maybe they shouldn’t!
I’m fine with removing all three of these leaders from power, how about you?
Until next time, folks.
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