Succulent smuggling: why are South Africa’s rare desert plants vanishing? @guardian
When all is well, the Richtersveld’s position in the Northern Cape, at the intersection of three biomes, coupled with its geological complexity –
the park is home to the oldest mountains in the world – and the fact that it straddles winter and summer rainfall regions, makes it a botanist’s paradise.
With more than 3,000 plant species, including 400 endemic to the region, it is “easily the most biologically diverse desert in the world”, Van Wyk says proudly.
Though Vladimir Putin controls the courts, security services and the repressive machinery of the state, Alexei Navalny controls the narrative. From @1843mag @TheEconomist
Law & Politics
Alexei Navalny expected the fate that awaited him when he boarded flight 936 back to Moscow from Berlin on January 17th, five months after his poisoning.
Most passengers were already seated when he walked through the plane cabin, wearing a bright green jacket and blue face mask, and wheeling a suitcase behind him.
Like his great adversary Vladimir Putin, Navalny knows the power of spectacle. People clapped. Cameras flashed. Reporters, including myself, got up to see the man who had risen from the dead.
He was happy to be returning home, he told us. Then he slid into 13A – his “lucky” seat – next to his wife Yulia.
In August 2020, Navalny nearly died after Russian agents smeared Novichok, a nerve agent, on his underpants during a campaign tour in Siberia. Navalny collapsed into a coma on a flight to Moscow.
The pilot made an emergency landing and a medical team gave him an antidote, probably saving his life.
A few days later, an air ambulance transported him to Berlin: Navalny was so toxic that he was carried in a sealed stretcher that looked like a coffin. He remembers nothing of his weeks in a coma. When he woke, he didn’t even recognise his wife.
As the flight taking him back home took off, Navalny and his wife removed their masks and held up a smartphone camera. Deadpan, Yulia said, “Boy, bring us some vodka, we’re going home.” They immediately tweeted the video to Navalny’s 2.5m followers.
Most would have recognised the quote, which comes from “Brat 2” (Brother 2), a cult film from 2000, about a charismatic, young Russian who fights injustice and travels to America to settle scores with an American racketeer.
The film appears to be a parable of Western acquisitiveness and Russian integrity, but Navalny believes that the most money-obsessed gangster of all sits in the Kremlin.
He picked up his political tactics from watching American TV series like “The West Wing” and “The Wire”
Despite the prospect of a showdown with the security services, Navalny seemed composed during the flight. He had already faced death and sometimes speaks as though he’s conquered it.
“When I died”, he has said to me, only half in jest, “When I was dead”. Aboard the flight, the Navalnys barely talked. Instead they watched “Rick and Morty”, an American cartoon, on their iPad.
As we made our descent, I handed my boarding pass to Navalny and asked him to scribble his thoughts on it. “Yo, Arkady”, he wrote, “last time I passed notes across rows was at school. Glad you are on this funny flight going I don’t know where.”
In the arrivals hall, Navalny spotted a large poster displaying an image of the Kremlin and paused in front of it, as though to lay claim to this symbol of power.
He addressed the accompanying cameras: “This is the happiest day for the past five months of my life. I have come home. I am not afraid.”
In different ways, both Putin and Navalny treat politics as a reality show. Putin runs election campaigns against sham parties with a predetermined outcome.
State tv spews lies about Ukrainian fascists and Russia’s “fifth column”, using them to justify real invasions, annexations and killings.
His aim is to manipulate the public and breed such cynicism about democratic politics that change becomes unimaginable.
Navalny’s campaigning work is a reality show too, played out before millions of followers on social media. He aims to reveal the true workings of power behind the smirking façade of the Russian political elite.
While the Kremlin is cranking up the 20th-century mechanisms of repression, Navalny is fighting a 21st-century media war, broadcasting the regime’s excesses in bitesize chunks.
The more thuggish state actors often play into Navalny’s hands. As he showed his passport to the border guard at the gate in Moscow, three masked officers dressed in black appeared behind him.
With a look of resignation, Yulia took off her mask, hugged and kissed him, then attentively wiped her lipstick from his cheek. Navalny was led away to a police cell far from the cameras.
The next day a kangaroo court was hastily arranged inside the police station. A portrait of Genrikh Yagoda, the murderous head of Stalin’s secret police who oversaw the first show trials, looked down from the wall.
The charges against Navalny reflected the Kafkaesque nature of Russian justice.
He was accused of breaching the conditions of his probation, set in 2014 after he received a suspended sentence on fabricated charges of fraud and embezzlement.
According to the prosecution, during the time he spent on life support in Germany, recuperating from the state’s attempt to assassinate him, he had failed to fulfill his twice-monthly duty of reporting to the Russian prison service. Navalny was remanded in jail for 30 days, pending sentencing.
Despite his incarceration, he went on the offensive. Shortly after Navalny was taken to his cell, his team launched an explosive attack: a slick, two-hour-long film about Putin’s secret palace on the Black Sea.
This is one of the most closely guarded sites in the world, protected by naval patrols and air-defence systems. Navalny’s supporters had launched a drone from an inflatable boat to film the compound, complete with helipads, vineyards and an underground ice rink.
They used architectural plans to make 3D reconstructions of the interior, which has been kitted out with a hookah lounge, pole-dancing stage and an $850 toilet brush. The film has been watched more than 110m times.
Though Putin controls the courts, security services and repressive machinery of the state, Navalny increasingly directs the narrative.
The video was intended to expose the moral rot at the heart of the Putin regime. But one detail pointed to a less obvious but equally significant point of contrast between the two politicians.
The wrought-iron gates to the mansion were capped with gold, two-headed eagles. They seemed to have been copied from those of the Winter Palace in St Petersburg, one of the Romanov residences stormed during the Russian revolution in 1917.
Was Navalny’s televisual invasion a prelude to actual revolution? And is Putin a tired emperor waiting to be felled?
Not since Vladimir Lenin has a self-made politician caused such fear within the political establishment. Twenty-five years ago Navalny started out as a jobbing real-estate lawyer; ten years ago he was known as little more than a blogger.
Now he is the leading opposition figure in Russia, boasting an agile media operation. Until very recently he had offices across the country, though the Kremlin has moved to arrest his supporters and crush his organisation, labelling it as an extremist, akin to terrorists. Navalny may be sitting in prison but his import has never been greater.
It is not just mastery of modern media that has given Navalny his power. However personal the vendetta between Putin and Navalny may seem, their rivalry ultimately reflects a historic battle between nation state and empire, between restoration and modernisation, between the idealised imperial and Soviet past, and “the wonderful Russia of the future”, as Navalny brands his project.
This is a fight about what it means to be Russian, what binds the country. And to understand why this argument remains so fraught, and so persistent, you need to look to history.
Nationalism in Russia has traditionally fallen into two broad (sometimes overlapping) categories: ethno-nationalism, which presented ethnic Russians as both a superior people and as victims, and imperial nationalism, the kind of frenzied flag-waving unleashed by Putin when he attacked Ukraine and Georgia.
Navalny wants something different: he believes in civic nationalism, a notion involving collective participation for the common good.
Russia never went through the transition from empire to nation state. In 1917 a morally bankrupt monarchy was swept away by the Bolsheviks, a millenarian sect promising to modernise the country and transform the world. They changed the faith but kept the empire.
The Soviet Union’s collapse in 1991 was an incomplete affair. Russia, which had formed the core of a multi-ethnic empire, struggled to formulate its own national identity.
The Soviet economic order and communist ideology were smashed. But whereas the former republics fostered the idea of national emancipation from the Soviet empire, Russia struggled to formulate its own national identity, unable to break free from its past.
Boris Yeltsin, Russia’s first democratically elected president, was concerned about fostering nationalism in a country where ethnic minorities made up a fifth of the population.
Instead of referring to citizens as Russkiy (Russian), signifying ethno-cultural identity, he used Rossiysky (of Russia), a word that indicated being a citizen of the Russian state.
He swapped the Red Flag for the pre-Soviet tricolour and abandoned the Soviet anthem for “Motif d’un chant national”, a 19th-century song without words that seemed to sum up the difficulty of expressing what it meant to be Russian.
In the absence of any unifying idea, he tried to reconnect Russia to its pre-Bolshevik past at one end and to the West at another. The Soviet period was redacted from the historic narrative.
When Putin succeeded Yeltsin in 2000 he reinstated Soviet symbols, such as the Stalin-era anthem, albeit with new lyrics. More fundamentally, he also restored Soviet methods of political control, including repression at home and aggression towards Russia’s neighbours.
Putin sought to root Russia’s identity in imperial nostalgia and saw the Soviet era as a continuation of that empire. “Putin is the last chord of the ussr,” Navalny told me in Berlin in October, when I went to see him as he was recovering from Novichok poisoning.
Toxic, imperial nationalism is holding Russia back, says Navalny. He sees post-Soviet Russia as exhibiting the worst aspects of capitalism – greed, materialism, corruption – without any of the democratic or social benefits free societies experience. He thinks Russia can change.
A crucial part of his reform programme would include devolving many decision-making and tax-raising powers, and ultimately much of the wealth, to Russia’s cities.
“Of course deep down Russian people will always feel they are different and special,” says Navalny.
“I’d like to see Russia as a normal European country, a country that does not threaten anybody, does not invade anyone, but lives for its own good.”
Putin’s and Navalny’s differing visions of history reflect their different style.
Putin has fashioned himself as a modern-day tsar: paternalistic, wedded to his country (he is divorced) and his destiny, the only person capable of holding Russia together with his autocratic grip.
He has turned inaugurations into coronations. At protests people now chant, “down with the tsar”.
Politics in Russia has traditionally taken place behind the thick walls of the Kremlin, away from the eyes of uninitiated mortals. Policies are announced to the people from a podium or television screen.
Navalny, by contrast, mixes with ordinary people as he campaigns, shaking hands and posing for selfies dressed in jeans and trainers (his clothes and haircut are sharper than a decade ago, but little else has changed).
Navalny strives to present himself as an Everyman. He avoids the ostentatious lifestyle most Russian politicians take for granted: he barely drinks and doesn’t womanise.
He has lived in the same three-bedroom apartment for the past 20 years. In February, during a break in his trial, he asked his lawyer to order in a meal from McDonald’s.
He has always maintained that fighting the regime should be fun, and he has certainly tried to make it entertaining.
He often makes allusions to popular culture, particularly Hollywood films (he likens his current jailers to stormtroopers in “Star Wars”, armed not with laser rifles but iron crowbars).
He fashions himself after American presidential candidates: he picked up many of his political tactics, he says, from watching American tv series like “The West Wing” and “The Wire”.
He has broken the wall that separates politicians from the public. At 6’2” he stands tall among his supporters (Putin, by contrast, is 5’7”) and is treated like a celebrity by them.
Out on the road, Navalny talks to voters about food prices, health care, schools and pot-holed roads.
In a restaurant in Vladivostok I once watched as two half-drunk businessmen challenged Navalny’s politics. He suggested they discuss export tariffs and taxes.
Twenty minutes later they offered to contribute money to his campaign and declared him “our candidate”.
Few people – if anyone – are allowed into Navalny’s private world. Like most politicians, Navalny inscribes his early life with historical and political context. His origins are unremarkable.
He was born in 1976 on the outskirts of Obninsk, a closed nuclear town near Moscow. His father was a lieutenant-colonel in the Soviet missile forces.
His mother was an accountant. When they retired, they took over an artisanal willow-weaving enterprise making baskets and woven figurines.
The quarter-century that separates the birth of Putin and Navalny includes the death of Stalin, the Cuban missile crisis and the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia.
By the time Navalny was born, Putin was already serving in the Soviet kgb. Navalny remembers the Soviet Union for its decay, rather than its power.
Navalny’s formative political experience was the explosion of the Chernobyl nuclear-power station in 1986, now identifiable as an emblem of the Soviet Union’s impending collapse.
Navalny, who was nine at the time, had spent his summers at his grandparents’ house on the outskirts of Chernobyl in Ukraine. His family experienced the cover-up: the Soviet government made locals dig up potatoes in the contaminated fallout zone to show that they weren’t dangerous.
When he went back to his grandmother's abandoned house some 20 years later, he found only her old coat lying on the floor and photos of himself as a child. Everything else had been stolen.
He has strong memories, too, of food shortages and scarce consumer goods. “I remember myself endlessly queuing for milk, dreaming of chewing gum and hearing my parents’ conversations about Yugoslav shoes or Czechoslovakian furniture,” he told me.
The turmoil that followed the Soviet Union’s collapse in 1991 was both dangerous and exciting to the teenage Navalny.
His own hometown was taken over by a Georgian gangster: “He wore white socks and everyone knew he was a kingpin. He solved issues.”
Navalny occasionally got involved in street-fights. Once, after a rock concert, he whipped out his nunchucks to rescue a hippy from an attack by drunken yobs.
He finally felt released from the drabness of official Soviet culture. “Films, music – everything became accessible,” he said.
As a youth, Navalny saw his hopes for Russia raised then dashed. He favoured the politics of Yeltsin, whose government was reforming and privatising vast swathes of the economy to help Russia become a functioning market democracy.
In 1993 Navalny cheered on as Yeltsin’s troops shelled the parliament building when a coalition of imperialists, nationalists and die-hard communists tried to stage an armed insurgency.
He was equally supportive when Yeltsin launched Russia’s first war in Chechnya a year later: he saw it as a restoration of law and order.
Unlike many Russian liberals, he had little sympathy for rebel Chechen fighters.
At the time, Navalny was studying law at the second-tier Peoples’ Friendship University in Moscow, where he witnessed rival gangs from the Caucasus fight a turf war over drugs.
A group of Chechen men dominated the trade and controlled Navalny’s dorm which left him with a deep prejudice toward this group.
In 1996, with Yeltsin weakened by a failed war and floundering economy, a small group of business tycoons sensed an opportunity.
Under the guise of keeping the communists out of power, they struck a deal with Yeltsin’s government: in return for throwing their financial and media resources behind Yeltsin, they took possession of Russia’s most valuable assets.
When Navalny graduated from university, both he – and his country – seemed to have a bright future ahead.
He got a job at Aeroflot Bank, working on antitrust and currency regulations, where he made about $1,000 a month (good money by the standards of the time).
Like many of his peers, he went on resort holidays to Turkey, where he met his wife Yulia in 1998. His relationship lasted, but other dreams turned sour.
To Navalny, the deal Yeltsin and the oligarchs stitched up did more than simply deprive Russians of their shared wealth. It discredited capitalism, liberalism and democracy to such an extent that many no longer saw their value.
Emboldened and empowered by their wealth and success in securing Yeltsin’s re-election in 1996 (he suffered several heart attacks and was all but incapacitated), the oligarchs put themselves in charge of his succession.
Three years later, in 1999, a cabal of oligarchs and members of Yeltsin’s family manoeuvred Putin, a former kgb officer with no previous interest in politics, into the presidency.
They hoped he would protect their riches and shield them from prosecution. That moment, says Navalny, the elevation of an individual by a few people – rather than his election by the citizens of Russia – was crucial in galvanising Navalny’s career: “It was Putin who brought me into politics.”
Though the political careers of Putin and Navalny could not have been more different, their lives have become entwined. Putin was elected president in 2000, the year that Navalny joined Yabloko, Russia’s oldest liberal party, which his parents had voted for.
He saw the party mainly as a quick route into parliament. He threw himself into grassroots organising, managed the parliamentary election campaign in Moscow and soon joined the top echelons of the party.
But he became frustrated with Yabloko’s leaders, who seemed more interested in scrapping with their competitors than securing actual power.
Putin had already cultivated an image as a sober, resolute leader who would bring order and stability. He was popular and reaped the benefits of earlier economic reforms, later fuelled by rising oil prices.
Incomes soared, bars and coffee shops opened, glossy magazines were launched and consumption boomed. The urban middle class seemed happy to heed Putin’s advice to enjoy life and stay out of politics.
All of this depleted the liberal opposition, which had traditionally drawn its support from the urban middle classes. Yet the need for opposition was growing.
In the name of rebuilding the Russian state, Putin was creating something far more powerful than the Yeltsin era oligarchy.
He used the courts and the security apparatus to take control over the economy and police access to the market, for the benefit of a few cronies. Putin’s regime turned corruption into a system of governance.
Navalny had few connections. He was not the kind of person to be invited to liberal soirées in Moscow where journalists, politicians, writers and actors rubbed shoulders.
Instead he sought to broaden his support and build alliances elsewhere. He turned to Russian nationalists – disenfranchised, working-class people left out of Russia’s oil bonanza, and normally shunned by the middle classes.
In 2005 anti-Putin groups assembled in Moscow for an event branded the “Russian March” (now held each year in multiple cities).
It brought together far-right skinheads, supremacists and neo-imperialists. A few thousand people assembled for the first rally, which was the largest ever demonstration against Putin.
Navalny reckoned that nationalism was too important to be surrendered to a bunch of neo-Nazis. In 2006 he advocated for this group’s right to assemble, and the following year he joined the march.
He explained that decision. “We must deprive the fascists of a right to proclaim national ideas...In fact, we should throw them out of that movement. Then those who propagate ethnic hatred will find themselves where they belong – in the dock.”
Yabloko expelled Navalny from the party. Undaunted, Navalny established the National Russian Liberation Movement: its Russian acronym, Narod, meant “people” or “folk”.
Russia under Putin was facing a “national catastrophe”, its manifesto declared: “Russia remains the largest piece of the Soviet Union which is yet to become an independent state.”
“He will enter history as Vladimir the Poisoner of Underpants”
The manifesto included high-minded talk of civil rights and freedom. Navalny’s own articulation of his views was cruder.
Trying to win over some of the nationalist crowd and establish his own credentials, he recorded a number of YouTube videos in which he identified people from the Caucasus with Islamic terrorists, describing them as cockroaches and vermin that should be eliminated.
He also called for the deportation of illegal immigrants.
Navalny soon tried to distance himself from some of these earlier comments. “Today they look very stupid,” he told me. Despite his insistence that he was just trying to broaden the party’s appeal, he ended up alienating middle-class liberals without attracting hardcore nationalists.
“I accomplished nothing but damage to my own image,” he said later. “I am branded a nationalist by liberals and a liberal by nationalists.”
His work exposing corruption was more successful. I first heard of Navalny not through his political campaigning but because he was buying shares in some of Russia’s largest state-run companies, which allowed him to turn up to their annual general meetings and grill the management.
He published the results of his investigations into graft and looting by Putin’s cronies on his blog and promoted them through social media.
This won him tens of thousands of new followers including various middle managers in those companies, who proved to be useful sources.
Russian television was firmly in the hands of the Kremlin, so Navalny used the internet as a vehicle for political transformation.
He launched a series of websites aimed at promoting small-scale civic activism. One allowed people to demand road repairs from their local authorities. Another enabled them to monitor public-procurement tenders in order to identify any misconduct.
In 2011 Navalny gathered his programmes, which had proved increasingly popular, under the umbrella of his anti-corruption foundation. This became his main political vehicle.
For decades the Kremlin had been effectively cultivating a “learned helplessness” among its citizenry, a psychological state in which people stop trying to change a situation because there seems no point.
By painting politics as cynical and worthless, the Russian government ensured that no one bothered to challenge it or even cared about voting.
Though Vladimir Putin controls the courts, security services and the repressive machinery of the state, Alexei Navalny controls the narrative. From @1843mag @TheEconomist [continued]
Law & Politics
In Russia, speaking the truth has always been a political act
Navalny saw the world differently. Exposing the corruption of the Russian elite simply proved a commonly known truth. He had greater ambitions.
If the Kremlin made Russians feel helpless, he wanted them to feel like their voice mattered. As Vedomosti, a newspaper, put it: “By his own example, he is showing to Russian citizens that it is possible to defend their rights.”
I was the Moscow correspondent for The Economist in 2011 and, like many, I struggled to get excited about elections that promised no change. Navalny had other ideas.
Using his blog, he encouraged people to vote for anyone other than Putin’s United Russia, which he branded “a party of crooks and thieves”. The label resonated.
When officials saw the galvanising effects of Navalny’s call to arms, they began to stuff ballot boxes so energetically and blatantly that social media was flooded with clear evidence of electoral violations.
On December 5th 2011, the day after the elections, Navalny issued a call for people of all political persuasions – “nationalists, liberals, leftists, greens, vegetarians, Martians” – to protest in Moscow and defend their votes.
As the crowds gathered, Navalny climbed onto a makeshift stage, holding his microphone like a rock star. “Thank you that you have felt yourself citizens. Thank you that you told these asses that we exist. We have a voice. Do we exist?” he asked.
“We exist,” thousands of voices responded.
“They call us micro-bloggers and internet hamsters. I am an internet hamster. And I will bite into the throats of these bastards. What do we call their party?” he asked again.
“The party of crooks and thieves,” the crowd responded.
“The party of crooks, thieves and murderers,” he corrected them.
As the crowd clashed with police in front of the menacing kgb building, I went to the Echo Moskvy radio station, where liberals gathered to gossip.
There I saw Mikhail Gorbachev, the last Soviet leader, who had just come off air after declaring that “we need to change the political order”.
He recalled the hundreds of thousands of people who protested against the Communist Party’s political monopoly in 1990.
“It was easy for me to leave power,” he said (which he did in 1991). “I did not steal anything and had nothing to fear. It will be much harder for them.”
After parliamentary elections in 2011, Navalny was arrested and jailed for 15 days. But over the following weeks and months the protests grew.
Hundreds of thousands of people marched through Moscow and other cities chanting “Russia without Putin” and “We are the power here”. Navalny had finally emerged as an influential political actor.
The demonstrations caused Putin to change his political messaging. He was already appealing to imperial nostalgia for the Soviet era.
Now he started harping on about traditional values and religious orthodoxy, to paint his own regime not only as the natural heir of Russia’s past but as a bulwark against alien and degenerate Western values.
Putin annexed Crimea from Ukraine in 2014, treasured since Catherine the Great and a holiday destination for the Soviet leadership. This was Putin’s own appeal to nationalism.
It had the added advantage that it pushed Navalny’s anti-corruption campaign out of the spotlight.
His wars in the Ukraine and the Caucasus, as well as in Syria, demonstrated that Russia was still a military power.
As his ratings soared at home, he moved to silence the opposition. Navalny was detained in 2014, and spent the next few months under house arrest.
When I visited Navalny in his office in August 2015, most Russian liberals were in a state of depression.
Boris Nemtsov, another liberal politician, had been murdered earlier that year. Many young, educated Russians were leaving the country.
Navalny admitted it was possible that within a year he might be sidelined once more. But he wouldn’t leave, he said.
“Emigration is not an option for me, and it is not an option for 99% of people who work with me.”
He knew his situation looked perilous, but he also believed that the collapse of Putin’s regime was “historically inevitable”. He would wait it out.
Persistence proved to be among Navalny’s most important qualities. By late 2016, the euphoria sparked by the annexation of Crimea began to subside.
Economic sanctions imposed by the West were hitting real incomes and public opinion began to turn.
In March 2017 Navalny launched his campaign for the presidential election the following year, by releasing a documentary about the secret wealth amassed by Dmitry Medvedev, Putin’s servile prime minister. This sparked protests across Russia.
Inevitably Navalny wasn’t allowed to run for president. That didn’t stop him campaigning, crisscrossing the country to speak at rallies.
Around this time a group of secret-service operatives, who worked for a clandestine unit that specialised in banned chemical weapons, began to shadow Navalny, as revealed last year by Bellingcat, an independent investigative-journalism outlet.
These Russian agents followed him for three years until they moved in for the kill in August 2020, daubing Navalny’s boxer shorts with nerve agent.
The attempt coincided with a national uprising in Belarus against a rigged election by Alexander Lukashenko, who has ruled the country for more than 25 years.
“Their success will be our success,” Navalny said on his YouTube channel, about the unprecedented demonstrations in Belarus.
Sure enough, when protests broke out in the far east of Russia last summer over the arrest of a popular governor, demonstrators expressed solidarity with Belarus.
The lesson for the Kremlin was clear. An opposition leader like Navalny was a clear and present danger.
By this time the regime had been playing cat and mouse with him for a decade, hoping to marginalise him. Now it decided to act.
When Navalny came round in a Berlin hospital, after more than two weeks in a coma, he told his associates, “so Putin has decided to kill me after all.”
When I went to see Navalny in Berlin in October he was speaking at double speed, as if on fast forward, probably an after-effect of the nerve agent.
At his trial two weeks after returning to Moscow in January, Navalny said in his closing statement that Putin – not he – was the one living in fear: “I’ve mortally offended him by surviving,” he said, speaking, handcuffed, from a bullet-proof glass cage in the courtroom.
“He will enter history as a poisoner. We had Yaroslav the Wise and Alexander the Liberator. And now we will have Vladimir the Poisoner of Underpants”.
Outside the court, members of the security services were busily arresting anyone who came to support him.
He turned up the rhetoric again at his appeal another two weeks later, quoting the Bible: “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled”.
Then he turned to another of his sacred texts, the film “Brat 2”, borrowing the hero’s words in the culminating moment, as he confronts the American kingpin.
“What is the most popular political slogan in Russia?” he asked the judge before turning to the court.
“Help me, someone…Where does power lie?” He spoke as though addressing a rally: “Real power lies in truth...They who have the truth have the power. Tens of millions of people want the truth and they'll get it sooner or later.”
In Russia, speaking the truth has always been a political act. A prison cell, a dock and a scaffold have often made the best pulpits.
Navalny’s words echoed those of Alexander Solzhenitsyn, the Russian novelist who published “Live Not by Lies”, an essay condemning the Soviet system, on the day he was arrested in 1974.
“Violence quickly grows old,” Solzhenitsyn wrote. “After only a few years it loses confidence in itself, and in order to maintain a respectable face it summons falsehood as its ally – since violence can conceal itself with nothing except lies, and the lies can be maintained only by violence.”
It’s an idea that still resonates. Putin’s regime continues to rest on the twin pillars of fear and lies. Navalny has staked his life on pulling down that edifice.
Navalny was sent to prison for two and half years for breaching the probation conditions set on conviction for trumped-up fraud charges in 2014, and taken to one of Russia’s harshest penal colonies not far from Moscow.
He was already suffering from severe back pain and numbness in his legs. The guards stopped him from sleeping. When the authorities refused to let him see his personal doctors, he went on hunger strike.
Two weeks into the strike, Navalny was suddenly tantalised by the smell of grilled chicken. Officers had brought an electric stove into the jail – a “friendly, Orwellian concentration camp”, as Navalny labels it – and an inmate had begun to cook.
Prisoners don’t normally eat such tasty fare. But this chicken wasn’t a treat: its sole purpose was to taunt Russia’s political prisoner number one.
For all the humiliation and degradation he has faced, the demonisation on state tv, even the assassination attempt, Navalny believes that the grilled chicken is the most apt example of the pettiness, cruelty and corruption of Putin’s regime.
As he wrote in an Instagram post sent through his lawyers in March: “The whole gang of thieves...do not believe that between ideas and a chicken, anyone would choose ideas.”
History will work its course while Navalny serves his time in prison. Every morning he is woken at 6am to march, dressed in a black prison robe, as loudspeakers blast a Soviet-era anthem:
“Glory to our free fatherland”. Navalny has become, as he recently described himself on social media “a skeleton staggering round his cell”.
His hunger strike is over, but even as arrest follows arrest on the streets of Russia, time is already transforming Navalny into a myth.
The regime has already killed so many of its critics. But myths can survive death. Sometimes they are enhanced by it.
When Navalny was tempted to eat, he managed to resist by thinking of the tens of thousands of Russians who “are being treated like slaves – in prisons and in the country – whose names will never be known”.
That, says Navalny, was the essence of his struggle. He was caught in an “epic battle between my human spirit and a prison chicken”. No one should bet on the chicken.■
22-JUN-2020 :: Whoever Controls The Narrative Controls The World.
Law & Politics
I thought to myself This all has the Imprimatur of the "political technologist of all of Rus." And non linear War Specialist Vladislav Surkov.
Putin's system was also ripe for export, Mr Surkov added. Foreign governments were already paying close attention, since the Russian "political algorithm" had long predicted the volatility now seen in western democracies.
With a flourish he sponsored lavish arts festivals for the most provocative modern artists in Moscow, then supported Orthodox fundamentalists, dressed all in black and carrying crosses, who in turn attacked the modern-art exhibitions. @TheAtlantic
"It was the first non-linear war," writes Surkov in a new short story, "Without Sky," published under his pseudonym and set in a dystopian future after the "fifth world war":
"My portfolio at the @KremlinRussia_E and in government has included ideology, media, political parties, religion, modernization, innovation, foreign relations, and ..." - here he pauses and smiles - "modern art."
A ceaseless shape-shifting that is unstoppable because it is undefinable Adam Curtis
The underlying aim, Surkov says, is not to win the war, but to use the conflict to create a constant state of destabilised perception, in order to manage and control
US top diplomat: China acting more 'repressively, aggressively' @AFP.
Law & Politics
An increasingly powerful China is challenging the world order, acting "more repressively" and "more aggressively" as it flexes its influence, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in an interview that aired Sunday.
"What we've witnessed over the last several years is China acting more repressively at home and more aggressively abroad. That is a fact," the top American diplomat said in an interview with CBS's "60 Minutes."
His comments came after President Joe Biden, in his first address to Congress on Wednesday, underscored that he was not seeking conflict with Beijing.
Biden said he told Chinese President Xi Jinping that in the competition to be the dominant power of the 21st century, "we welcome the competition -- and that we are not looking for conflict."
Blinken said China is "the one country in the world that has the military, economic, diplomatic capacity to undermine or challenge the rules-based order that we care so much about and are determined to defend.
"But I want to be very clear about something... our purpose is not to contain China, to hold it back, to keep it down; it is to uphold this rules-based order that China is posing a challenge to."
tensions have risen sharply with China over the past few years as the United States also takes issue with Beijing's assertive military moves and human rights concerns, including what Washington has described as genocide against the mostly Muslim Uyghur minority.
"The Dark Forest," which continues the story of the invasion of Earth by the ruthless and technologically superior Trisolarans, introduces Liu’s three axioms of “cosmic sociology.” @nfergus
Law & Politics
First, “Survival is the primary need of civilization.”
Second, “Civilization continuously grows and expands, but the total matter in the universe remains constant.”
Third, “chains of suspicion” and the risk of a “technological explosion” in another civilization mean that in space there can only be the law of the jungle.
In the words of the book’s hero, Luo Ji:
The universe is a dark forest. Every civilization is an armed hunter stalking through the trees like a ghost ... trying to tread without sound ...
The hunter has to be careful, because everywhere in the forest are stealthy hunters like him.
If he finds other life — another hunter, an angel or a demon, a delicate infant or a tottering old man, a fairy or a demigod —
there’s only one thing he can do: open fire and eliminate them. In this forest, hell is other people ... any life that exposes its own existence will be swiftly wiped out.
This is intergalactic Darwinism.
Origin of Covid — Following the Clues Nicholas Wade
The Covid-19 pandemic has disrupted lives the world over for more than a year. Its death toll will soon reach three million people.
Yet the origin of pandemic remains uncertain: the political agendas of governments and scientists have generated thick clouds of obfuscation, which the mainstream press seems helpless to dispel.
In what follows I will sort through the available scientific facts, which hold many clues as to what happened, and provide readers with the evidence to make their own judgments. I will then try to assess the complex issue of blame, which starts with, but extends far beyond, the government of China.
By the end of this article, you may have learned a lot about the molecular biology of viruses. I will try to keep this process as painless as possible.
But the science cannot be avoided because for now, and probably for a long time hence, it offers the only sure thread through the maze.
The virus that caused the pandemic is known officially as SARS-CoV-2, but can be called SARS2 for short.
As many people know, there are two main theories about its origin. One is that it jumped naturally from wildlife to people. The other is that the virus was under study in a lab, from which it escaped. It matters a great deal which is the case if we hope to prevent a second such occurrence.
I’ll describe the two theories, explain why each is plausible, and then ask which provides the better explanation of the available facts.
It’s important to note that so far there is no direct evidence for either theory. Each depends on a set of reasonable conjectures but so far lacks proof. So I have only clues, not conclusions, to offer.
But those clues point in a specific direction. And having inferred that direction, I’m going to delineate some of the strands in this tangled skein of disaster.
A Tale of Two Theories
After the pandemic first broke out in December 2019, Chinese authorities reported that many cases had occurred in the wet market — a place selling wild animals for meat — in Wuhan.
This reminded experts of the SARS1 epidemic of 2002 in which a bat virus had spread first to civets, an animal sold in wet markets, and from civets to people.
A similar bat virus caused a second epidemic, known as MERS, in 2012. This time the intermediary host animal was camels.
The decoding of the virus’s genome showed it belonged a viral family known as beta-coronaviruses, to which the SARS1 and MERS viruses also belong.
The relationship supported the idea that, like them, it was a natural virus that had managed to jump from bats, via another animal host, to people.
The wet market connection, the major point of similarity with the SARS1 and MERS epidemics, was soon broken: Chinese researchers found earlier cases in Wuhan with no link to the wet market.
But that seemed not to matter when so much further evidence in support of natural emergence was expected shortly.
Wuhan, however, is home of the Wuhan Institute of Virology, a leading world center for research on coronaviruses. So the possibility that the SARS2 virus had escaped from the lab could not be ruled out. Two reasonable scenarios of origin were on the table.
From early on, public and media perceptions were shaped in favor of the natural emergence scenario by strong statements from two scientific groups. These statements were not at first examined as critically as they should have been.
“We stand together to strongly condemn conspiracy theories suggesting that COVID-19 does not have a natural origin,” a group of virologists and others wrote in the Lancet on February 19, 2020, when it was really far too soon for anyone to be sure what had happened.
Scientists “overwhelmingly conclude that this coronavirus originated in wildlife,” they said, with a stirring rallying call for readers to stand with Chinese colleagues on the frontline of fighting the disease.
Contrary to the letter writers’ assertion, the idea that the virus might have escaped from a lab invoked accident, not conspiracy. It surely needed to be explored, not rejected out of hand.
A defining mark of good scientists is that they go to great pains to distinguish between what they know and what they don’t know.
By this criterion, the signatories of the Lancet letter were behaving as poor scientists: they were assuring the public of facts they could not know for sure were true.
It later turned out that the Lancet letter had been organized and drafted by Peter Daszak, president of the EcoHealth Alliance of New York. Dr. Daszak’s organization funded coronavirus research at the Wuhan Institute of Virology.
If the SARS2 virus had indeed escaped from research he funded, Dr. Daszak would be potentially culpable. This acute conflict of interest was not declared to the Lancet’s readers. To the contrary, the letter concluded, “We declare no competing interests.”
Virologists like Dr. Daszak had much at stake in the assigning of blame for the pandemic. For 20 years, mostly beneath the public’s attention, they had been playing a dangerous game. In their laboratories they routinely created viruses more dangerous than those that exist in nature.
They argued they could do so safely, and that by getting ahead of nature they could predict and prevent natural “spillovers,” the cross-over of viruses from an animal host to people.
If SARS2 had indeed escaped from such a laboratory experiment, a savage blowback could be expected, and the storm of public indignation would affect virologists everywhere, not just in China.
“It would shatter the scientific edifice top to bottom,” an MIT Technology Review editor, Antonio Regalado, said in March 2020.
A second statement which had enormous influence in shaping public attitudes was a letter (in other words an opinion piece, not a scientific article) published on 17 March 2020 in the journal Nature Medicine.
Its authors were a group of virologists led by Kristian G. Andersen of the Scripps Research Institute.
“Our analyses clearly show that SARS-CoV-2 is not a laboratory construct or a purposefully manipulated virus,” the five virologists declared in the second paragraph of their letter.
Unfortunately this was another case of poor science, in the sense defined above. True, some older methods of cutting and pasting viral genomes retain tell-tale signs of manipulation.
But newer methods, called “no-see-um” or “seamless” approaches, leave no defining marks. Nor do other methods for manipulating viruses such as serial passage, the repeated transfer of viruses from one culture of cells to another.
If a virus has been manipulated, whether with a seamless method or by serial passage, there is no way of knowing that this is the case. Dr. Andersen and his colleagues were assuring their readers of something they could not know.
The discussion part their letter begins, “It is improbable that SARS-CoV-2 emerged through laboratory manipulation of a related SARS-CoV-like coronavirus”.
But wait, didn’t the lead say the virus had clearly not been manipulated? The authors’ degree of certainty seemed to slip several notches when it came to laying out their reasoning.
The reason for the slippage is clear once the technical language has been penetrated. The two reasons the authors give for supposing manipulation to be improbable are decidedly inconclusive.
First, they say that the spike protein of SARS2 binds very well to its target, the human ACE2 receptor, but does so in a different way from that which physical calculations suggest would be the best fit. Therefore the virus must have arisen by natural selection, not manipulation.
If this argument seems hard to grasp, it’s because it’s so strained.
The authors’ basic assumption, not spelt out, is that anyone trying to make a bat virus bind to human cells could do so in only one way.
First they would calculate the strongest possible fit between the human ACE2 receptor and the spike protein with which the virus latches onto it.
They would then design the spike protein accordingly (by selecting the right string of amino acid units that compose it).
Since the SARS2 spike protein is not of this calculated best design, the Andersen paper says, therefore it can’t have been manipulated.
But this ignores the way that virologists do in fact get spike proteins to bind to chosen targets, which is not by calculation but by splicing in spike protein genes from other viruses or by serial passage.
With serial passage, each time the virus’s progeny are transferred to new cell cultures or animals, the more successful are selected until one emerges that makes a really tight bind to human cells. Natural selection has done all the heavy lifting.
The Andersen paper’s speculation about designing a viral spike protein through calculation has no bearing on whether or not the virus was manipulated by one of the other two methods.
The authors’ second argument against manipulation is even more contrived. Although most living things use DNA as their hereditary material, a number of viruses use RNA, DNA’s close chemical cousin.
But RNA is difficult to manipulate, so researchers working on coronaviruses, which are RNA-based, will first convert the RNA genome to DNA.
They manipulate the DNA version, whether by adding or altering genes, and then arrange for the manipulated DNA genome to be converted back into infectious RNA.
Only a certain number of these DNA backbones have been described in the scientific literature. Anyone manipulating the SARS2 virus “would probably” have used one of these known backbones, the Andersen group writes, and since SARS2 is not derived from any of them, therefore it was not manipulated. But the argument is conspicuously inconclusive.
DNA backbones are quite easy to make, so it’s obviously possible that SARS2 was manipulated using an unpublished DNA backbone.
And that’s it. These are the two arguments made by the Andersen group in support of their declaration that the SARS2 virus was clearly not manipulated.
And this conclusion, grounded in nothing but two inconclusive speculations, convinced the world’s press that SARS2 could not have escaped from a lab. A technical critique of the Andersen letter takes it down in harsher words.
Science is supposedly a self-correcting community of experts who constantly check each other’s work.
So why didn’t other virologists point out that the Andersen group’s argument was full of absurdly large holes? Perhaps because in today’s universities speech can be very costly. Careers can be destroyed for stepping out of line.
Any virologist who challenges the community’s declared view risks having his next grant application turned down by the panel of fellow virologists that advises the government grant distribution agency.
The Daszak and Andersen letters were really political, not scientific statements, yet were amazingly effective.
Articles in the mainstream press repeatedly stated that a consensus of experts had ruled lab escape out of the question or extremely unlikely.
Their authors relied for the most part on the Daszak and Andersen letters, failing to understand the yawning gaps in their arguments.
Mainstream newspapers all have science journalists on their staff, as do the major networks, and these specialist reporters are supposed to be able to question scientists and check their assertions. But the Daszak and Andersen assertions went largely unchallenged.
Doubts about natural emergence
Natural emergence was the media’s preferred theory until around February 2021 and the visit by a World Health Organization commission to China.
The commission’s composition and access were heavily controlled by the Chinese authorities.
Its members, who included the ubiquitous Dr. Daszak, kept asserting before, during and after their visit that lab escape was extremely unlikely.
But this was not quite the propaganda victory the Chinese authorities may have been hoping for.
What became clear was that the Chinese had no evidence to offer the commission in support of the natural emergence theory.
This was surprising because both the SARS1 and MERS viruses had left copious traces in the environment.
The intermediary host species of SARS1 was identified within four months of the epidemic’s outbreak, and the host of MERS within nine months.
Yet some 15 months after the SARS2 pandemic began, and a presumably intensive search, Chinese researchers had failed to find either the original bat population, or the intermediate species to which SARS2 might have jumped, or any serological evidence that any Chinese population, including that of Wuhan, had ever been exposed to the virus prior to December 2019.
Natural emergence remained a conjecture which, however plausible to begin with, had gained not a shred of supporting evidence in over a year.
And as long as that remains the case, it’s logical to pay serious attention to the alternative conjecture, that SARS2 escaped from a lab.
Why would anyone want to create a novel virus capable of causing a pandemic?
Ever since virologists gained the tools for manipulating a virus’s genes, they have argued they could get ahead of a potential pandemic by exploring how close a given animal virus might be to making the jump to humans.
And that justified lab experiments in enhancing the ability of dangerous animal viruses to infect people, virologists asserted.
With this rationale, they have recreated the 1918 flu virus, shown how the almost extinct polio virus can be synthesized from its published DNA sequence, and introduced a smallpox gene into a related virus.
These enhancements of viral capabilities are known blandly as gain-of-function experiments.
With coronaviruses, there was particular interest in the spike proteins, which jut out all around the spherical surface of the virus and pretty much determine which species of animal it will target.
In 2000 Dutch researchers, for instance, earned the gratitude of rodents everywhere by genetically engineering the spike protein of a mouse coronavirus so that it would attack only cats.
Virologists started studying bat coronaviruses in earnest after these turned out to be the source of both the SARS1 and MERS epidemics.
In particular, researchers wanted to understand what changes needed to occur in a bat virus’s spike proteins before it could infect people.
Researchers at the Wuhan Institute of Virology, led by China’s leading expert on bat viruses, Dr. Shi Zheng-li or “Bat Lady”, mounted frequent expeditions to the bat-infected caves of Yunnan in southern China and collected around a hundred different bat coronaviruses.
Dr. Shi then teamed up with Ralph S. Baric, an eminent coronavirus researcher at the University of North Carolina.
Their work focused on enhancing the ability of bat viruses to attack humans so as to “examine the emergence potential (that is, the potential to infect humans) of circulating bat CoVs [coronaviruses].”
In pursuit of this aim, in November 2015 they created a novel virus by taking the backbone of the SARS1 virus and replacing its spike protein with one from a bat virus (known as SHC014-CoV).
This manufactured virus was able to infect the cells of the human airway, at least when tested against a lab culture of such cells.
The SHC014-CoV/SARS1 virus is known as a chimera because its genome contains genetic material from two strains of virus.
If the SARS2 virus were to have been cooked up in Dr. Shi’s lab, then its direct prototype would have been the SHC014-CoV/SARS1 chimera, the potential danger of which concerned many observers and prompted intense discussion.
“If the virus escaped, nobody could predict the trajectory,” said Simon Wain-Hobson, a virologist at the Pasteur Institute in Paris.
Dr. Baric and Dr. Shi referred to the obvious risks in their paper but argued they should be weighed against the benefit of foreshadowing future spillovers.
Scientific review panels, they wrote, “may deem similar studies building chimeric viruses based on circulating strains too risky to pursue.”
Given various restrictions being placed on gain-of function (GOF) research, matters had arrived in their view at
“a crossroads of GOF research concerns; the potential to prepare for and mitigate future outbreaks must be weighed against the risk of creating more dangerous pathogens. In developing policies moving forward, it is important to consider the value of the data generated by these studies and whether these types of chimeric virus studies warrant further investigation versus the inherent risks involved.”
That statement was made in 2015. From the hindsight of 2021, one can say that the value of gain-of-function studies in preventing the SARS2 epidemic was zero.
The risk was catastrophic, if indeed the SARS2 virus was generated in a gain-of-function experiment.
Origin of Covid — Following the Clues Nicholas Wade [continued]
Inside the Wuhan Institute of Virology
Dr. Baric had developed, and taught Dr. Shi, a general method for engineering bat coronaviruses to attack other species. The specific targets were human cells grown in cultures and humanized mice.
These laboratory mice, a cheap and ethical stand-in for human subjects, are genetically engineered to carry the human version of a protein called ACE2 that studs the surface of cells that line the airways.
Dr. Shi returned to her lab at the Wuhan Institute of Virology and resumed the work she had started on genetically engineering coronaviruses to attack human cells.
How can we be so sure?
Because, by a strange twist in the story, her work was funded by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), a part of the U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH).
And grant proposals that funded her work, which are a matter of public record, specify exactly what she planned to do with the money.
The grants were assigned to the prime contractor, Dr. Daszak of the EcoHealth Alliance, who subcontracted them to Dr. Shi.
Here are extracts from the grants for fiscal years 2018 and 2019. “CoV” stands for coronavirus and “S protein” refers to the virus’s spike protein.
“Test predictions of CoV inter-species transmission. Predictive models of host range (i.e. emergence potential) will be tested experimentally using reverse genetics, pseudovirus and receptor binding assays, and virus infection experiments across a range of cell cultures from different species and humanized mice.”
“We will use S protein sequence data, infectious clone technology, in vitro and in vivo infection experiments and analysis of receptor binding to test the hypothesis that % divergence threshold
in S protein sequences predict spillover potential.”
What this means, in non-technical language, is that Dr. Shi set out to create novel coronaviruses with the highest possible infectivity for human cells.
Her plan was to take genes that coded for spike proteins possessing a variety of measured affinities for human cells, ranging from high to low.
She would insert these spike genes one by one into the backbone of a number of viral genomes (“reverse genetics” and “infectious clone technology”), creating a series of chimeric viruses.
These chimeric viruses would then be tested for their ability to attack human cell cultures (“in vitro”) and humanized mice (“in vivo”).
And this information would help predict the likelihood of “spillover,” the jump of a coronavirus from bats to people.
The methodical approach was designed to find the best combination of coronavirus backbone and spike protein for infecting human cells.
The approach could have generated SARS2-like viruses, and indeed may have created the SARS2 virus itself with the right combination of virus backbone and spike protein.
It cannot yet be stated that Dr. Shi did or did not generate SARS2 in her lab because her records have been sealed, but it seems she was certainly on the right track to have done so.
“It is clear that the Wuhan Institute of Virology was systematically constructing novel chimeric coronaviruses and was assessing their ability to infect human cells and human-ACE2-expressing mice,” says Richard H. Ebright, a molecular biologist at Rutgers University and leading expert on biosafety.
“It is also clear,” Dr. Ebright said, “that, depending on the constant genomic contexts chosen for analysis, this work could have produced SARS-CoV-2 or a proximal progenitor of SARS-CoV-2.” “Genomic context” refers to the particular viral backbone used as the testbed for the spike protein.
The lab escape scenario for the origin of the SARS2 virus, as should by now be evident, is not mere hand-waving in the direction of the Wuhan Institute of Virology. It is a detailed proposal, based on the specific project being funded there by the NIAID.
Even if the grant required the work plan described above, how can we be sure that the plan was in fact carried out?
For that we can rely on the word of Dr. Daszak, who has been much protesting for the last 15 months that lab escape was a ludicrous conspiracy theory invented by China-bashers.
On 9 December 2019, before the outbreak of the pandemic became generally known, Dr. Daszak gave an interview in which he talked in glowing terms of how his researchers at the Wuhan Institute of Virology had been reprogramming the spike protein and generating chimeric coronaviruses capable of infecting humanized mice.
“And we have now found, you know, after 6 or 7 years of doing this, over 100 new sars-related coronaviruses, very close to SARS,” Dr. Daszak says around minute 28 of the interview.
“Some of them get into human cells in the lab, some of them can cause SARS disease in humanized mice models and are untreatable with therapeutic monoclonals and you can’t vaccinate against them with a vaccine. So, these are a clear and present danger….
“Interviewer: You say these are diverse coronaviruses and you can’t vaccinate against them, and no anti-virals — so what do we do?
“Daszak: Well I think…coronaviruses — you can manipulate them in the lab pretty easily. Spike protein drives a lot of what happen with coronavirus, in zoonotic risk. So you can get the sequence, you can build the protein, and we work a lot with Ralph Baric at UNC to do this. Insert into the backbone of another virus and do some work in the lab. So you can get more predictive when you find a sequence. You’ve got this diversity. Now the logical progression for vaccines is, if you are going to develop a vaccine for SARS, people are going to use pandemic SARS, but let’s insert some of these other things and get a better vaccine.”
The insertions he referred to perhaps included an element called the furin cleavage site, discussed below, which greatly increases viral infectivity for human cells.
In disjointed style, Dr. Daszak is referring to the fact that once you have generated a novel coronavirus that can attack human cells, you can take the spike protein and make it the basis for a vaccine.
One can only imagine Dr. Daszak’s reaction when he heard of the outbreak of the epidemic in Wuhan a few days later.
He would have known better than anyone the Wuhan Institute’s goal of making bat coronaviruses infectious to humans, as well as the weaknesses in the institute’s defense against their own researchers becoming infected.
But instead of providing public health authorities with the plentiful information at his disposal, he immediately launched a public relations campaign to persuade the world that the epidemic couldn’t possibly have been caused by one of his souped-up viruses.
“The idea that this virus escaped from a lab is just pure baloney. It’s simply not true,” he declared in an April 2020 interview.
The Safety Arrangements at the Wuhan Institute of Virology
Dr. Daszak was possibly unaware of, or perhaps he knew all too well, the long history of viruses escaping from even the best run laboratories.
The smallpox virus escaped three times from labs in England in the 1960’s and 1970’s, causing 80 cases and 3 deaths. Dangerous viruses have leaked out of labs almost every year since.
Coming to more recent times, the SARS1 virus has proved a true escape artist, leaking from laboratories in Singapore, Taiwan, and no less than four times from the Chinese National Institute of Virology in Beijing.
One reason for SARS1 being so hard to handle is that there were no vaccines available to protect laboratory workers.
As Dr. Daszak mentioned in his December 19 interview quoted above, the Wuhan researchers too had been unable to develop vaccines against the coronaviruses they had designed to infect human cells.
They would have been as defenseless against the SARS2 virus, if it were generated in their lab, as their Beijing colleagues were against SARS1.
A second reason for the severe danger of novel coronaviruses has to do with the required levels of lab safety. There are four degrees of safety, designated BSL1 to BSL4, with BSL4 being the most restrictive and designed for deadly pathogens like the Ebola virus.
The Wuhan Institute of Virology had a new BSL4 lab, but its state of readiness considerably alarmed the State Department inspectors who visited it from the Beijing embassy in 2018.
“The new lab has a serious shortage of appropriately trained technicians and investigators needed to safely operate this high-containment laboratory,” the inspectors wrote in a cable of 19 January 2018.
The real problem, however, was not the unsafe state of the Wuhan BSL4 lab but the fact that virologists worldwide don’t like working in BSL4 conditions.
You have to wear a space suit, do operations in closed cabinets and accept that everything will take twice as long. So the rules assigning each kind of virus to a given safety level were laxer than some might think was prudent.
Before 2020, the rules followed by virologists in China and elsewhere required that experiments with the SARS1 and MERS viruses be conducted in BSL3 conditions. But all other bat coronaviruses could be studied in BSL2, the next level down.
BSL2 requires taking fairly minimal safety precautions, such as wearing lab coats and gloves, not sucking up liquids in a pipette, and putting up biohazard warning signs.
Yet a gain-of-function experiment conducted in BSL2 might produce an agent more infectious than either SARS1 or MERS.
And if it did, then lab workers would stand a high chance of infection, especially if unvaccinated.
Much of Dr. Shi’s work on gain-of-function in coronaviruses was performed at the BSL2 safety level, as is stated in her publications and other documents.
She has said in an interview with Science magazine that “The coronavirus research in our laboratory is conducted in BSL-2 or BSL-3 laboratories.”
“It is clear that some or all of this work was being performed using a biosafety standard — biosafety level 2, the biosafety level of a standard US dentist’s office — that would pose an unacceptably high risk of infection of laboratory staff upon contact with a virus having the transmission properties of SARS-CoV-2,” says Dr. Ebright.
“It also is clear,” he adds, “that this work never should have been funded and never should have been performed.”
This is a view he holds regardless of whether or not the SARS2 virus ever saw the inside of a lab.
Concern about safety conditions at the Wuhan lab was not, it seems, misplaced.
According to a fact sheet issued by the State Department on January 21,2021, “ The U.S. government has reason to believe that several researchers inside the WIV became sick in autumn 2019, before the first identified case of the outbreak, with symptoms consistent with both COVID-19 and common seasonal illnesses.”
David Asher, a fellow of the Hudson Institute and former consultant to the State Department, provided more detail about the incident at a seminar.
Knowledge of the incident came from a mix of public information and “some high end information collected by our intelligence community,” he said.
Three people working at a BSL3 lab at the institute fell sick within a week of each other with severe symptoms that required hospitalization.
This was “the first known cluster that we’re aware of, of victims of what we believe to be COVID-19.”
Influenza could not completely be ruled out but seemed unlikely in the circumstances, he said.
Origin of Covid — Following the Clues Nicholas Wade [more]
Comparing the Rival Scenarios of SARS2 Origin
The evidence above adds up to a serious case that the SARS2 virus could have been created in a lab, from which it then escaped. But the case, however substantial, falls short of proof.
Proof would consist of evidence from the Wuhan Institute of Virology, or related labs in Wuhan, that SARS2 or a predecessor virus was under development there.
For lack of access to such records, another approach is to take certain salient facts about the SARS2 virus and ask how well each is explained by the two rival scenarios of origin, those of natural emergence and lab escape.
Here are four tests of the two hypotheses. A couple have some technical detail, but these are among the most persuasive for those who may care to follow the argument.
1) The place of origin.
Start with geography. The two closest known relatives of the SARS2 virus were collected from bats living in caves in Yunnan, a province of southern China.
If the SARS2 virus had first infected people living around the Yunnan caves, that would strongly support the idea that the virus had spilled over to people naturally. But this isn’t what happened.
The pandemic broke out 1,500 kilometers away, in Wuhan.
Beta-coronaviruses, the family of bat viruses to which SARS2 belongs, infect the horseshoe bat Rhinolophus affinis, which ranges across southern China. The bats’ range is 50 kilometers, so it’s unlikely that any made it to Wuhan.
In any case, the first cases of the Covid-19 pandemic probably occurred in September, when temperatures in Hubei province are already cold enough to send bats into hibernation.
What if the bat viruses infected some intermediate host first? You would need a longstanding population of bats in frequent proximity with an intermediate host, which in turn must often cross paths with people.
All these exchanges of virus must take place somewhere outside Wuhan, a busy metropolis which so far as is known is not a natural habitat of Rhinolophus bat colonies.
The infected person (or animal) carrying this highly transmissible virus must have traveled to Wuhan without infecting anyone else.
No one in his or her family got sick. If the person jumped on a train to Wuhan, no fellow passengers fell ill.
It’s a stretch, in other words, to get the pandemic to break out naturally outside Wuhan and then, without leaving any trace, to make its first appearance there.
For the lab escape scenario, a Wuhan origin for the virus is a no-brainer. Wuhan is home to China’s leading center of coronavirus research where, as noted above, researchers were genetically engineering bat coronaviruses to attack human cells.
They were doing so unvaccinated and under the minimal safety conditions of a BSL2 lab.
If a virus with the unexpected infectiousness of SARS2 had been generated there, its escape would be no surprise.
2) Natural history and evolution
The initial location of the pandemic is a small part of a larger problem, that of its natural history. Viruses don’t just make one time jumps from one species to another.
The coronavirus spike protein, adapted to attack bat cells, needs repeated jumps to another species, most of which fail, before it gains a lucky mutation.
Mutation — a change in one of its RNA units — causes a different amino acid unit to be incorporated into its spike protein and makes the spike protein better able to attack the cells of some other species.
Through several more such mutation-driven adjustments, the virus adapts to its new host, say some animal with which bats are in frequent contact. The whole process then resumes as the virus moves from this intermediate host to people.
In the case of SARS1, researchers have documented the successive changes in its spike protein as the virus evolved step by step into a dangerous pathogen.
After it had gotten from bats into civets, there were six further changes in its spike protein before it became a mild pathogen in people.
After a further 14 changes, the virus was much better adapted to humans, and with a further 4 the epidemic took off.
But when you look for the fingerprints of a similar transition in SARS2, a strange surprise awaits.
The virus has changed hardly at all, at least until recently. From its very first appearance, it was well adapted to human cells.
Researchers led by Alina Chan of the Broad Institute compared SARS2 with late stage SARS1, which by then was well adapted to human cells, and found that the two viruses were similarly well adapted.
“By the time SARS-CoV-2 was first detected in late 2019, it was already pre-adapted to human transmission to an extent similar to late epidemic SARS-CoV,” they wrote.
Even those who think lab origin unlikely agree that SARS2 genomes are remarkable uniform.
Dr. Baric writes that “early strains identified in Wuhan, China, showed limited genetic diversity, which suggests that the virus may have been introduced from a single source.”
A single source would of course be compatible with lab escape, less so with the massive variation and selection which is evolution’s hallmark way of doing business.
The uniform structure of SARS2 genomes gives no hint of any passage through an intermediate animal host, and no such host has been identified in nature.
Proponents of natural emergence suggest that SARS2 incubated in a yet-to-be found human population before gaining its special properties. Or that it jumped to a host animal outside China.
All these conjectures are possible, but strained.
Proponents of lab leak have a simpler explanation. SARS2 was adapted to human cells from the start because it was grown in humanized mice or in lab cultures of human cells, just as described in Dr. Daszak’s grant proposal. Its genome shows little diversity because the hallmark of lab cultures is uniformity.
Proponents of laboratory escape joke that of course the SARS2 virus infected an intermediary host species before spreading to people, and that they have identified it — a humanized mouse from the Wuhan Institute of Virology.
3) The furin cleavage site.
The furin cleavage site is a minute part of the virus’s anatomy but one that exerts great influence on its infectivity.
It sits in the middle of the SARS2 spike protein. It also lies at the heart of the puzzle of where the virus came from.
The spike protein has two sub-units with different roles. The first, called S1, recognizes the virus’s target, a protein called angiotensin converting enzyme-2 (or ACE2) which studs the surface of cells lining the human airways.
The second, S2, helps the virus, once anchored to the cell, to fuse with the cell’s membrane. After the virus’s outer membrane has coalesced with that of the stricken cell, the viral genome is injected into the cell, hijacks its protein-making machinery and forces it to generate new viruses.
But this invasion cannot begin until the S1 and S2 subunits have been cut apart. And there, right at the S1/S2 junction, is the furin cleavage site that ensures the spike protein will be cleaved in exactly the right place.
The virus, a model of economic design, does not carry its own cleaver. It relies on the cell to do the cleaving for it.
Human cells have a protein cutting tool on their surface known as furin. Furin will cut any protein chain that carries its signature target cutting site.
This is the sequence of amino acid units proline-arginine-arginine-alanine, or PRRA in the code that refers to each amino acid by a letter of the alphabet. PRRA is the amino acid sequence at the core of SARS2’s furin cleavage site.
Viruses have all kinds of clever tricks, so why does the furin cleavage site stand out? Because of all known SARS-related beta-coronaviruses, only SARS2 possesses a furin cleavage site. All the other viruses have their S2 unit cleaved at a different site and by a different mechanism.
How then did SARS2 acquire its furin cleavage site? It was either naturally, or from having it inserted at the S1/S2 junction in a gain-of-function experiment.
Consider natural origin first. Two ways viruses evolve are by mutation and by recombination. Mutation is the process of random change in DNA (or RNA for coronaviruses) that usually results in one amino acid in a protein chain being switched for another.
Many of these changes harm the virus but natural selection retains the few that do something useful.
Mutation is the process by which the SARS1 spike protein gradually switched its preferred target cells from those of bats to civets, and then to humans.
Mutation seems a less likely way for SARS2’s furin cleavage site to be generated, even though it can’t completely be ruled out.
The site’s four amino acid units are all together, and all at just the right place in the S1/S2 junction.
Mutation is a random process triggered by copying errors (when new viral genomes are being generated) or by chemical decay of genomic units.
So it typically affects single amino acids at different spots in a protein chain. A string of amino acids like that of the furin cleavage site is much more likely to be acquired all together through a quite different process known as recombination.
Recombination is an inadvertent swapping of genomic material that occurs when two viruses happen to invade the same cell, and their progeny are assembled with bits and pieces of RNA belonging to the other.
Beta-coronaviruses will only combine with other beta-coronaviruses but can acquire, by recombination, almost any genetic element present in the collective genomic pool. What they cannot acquire is an element the pool does not possess.
The genomes of almost 3,000 beta-coronaviruses, the class to which SARS2 belongs, have been cataloged. And none possesses a furin cleavage site.
Proponents of natural emergence say SARS2 could have picked up the site from some as yet unknown beta-coronavirus.
But bat beta-coronaviruses evidently don’t need a furin cleavage site to infect bat cells, so there’s no great likelihood that any beta-coronavirus in fact possesses one, and indeed none has been found so far.
The proponents’ next argument is that SARS2 acquired its furin cleavage site from people. A predecessor of SARS2 could have been circulating in the human population for months or years until at some point it acquired a furin cleavage site from human cells. It would then have been ready to break out as a pandemic.
If this is what happened, there should be traces in hospital surveillance records of the people infected by the slowly evolving virus. But none has so far come to light.
According to the WHO report on the origins of the virus, the sentinel hospitals in Hubei province, home of Wuhan, routinely monitor influenza-like illnesses and “no evidence to suggest substantial SARSCoV-2 transmission in the months preceding the outbreak in December was observed.”
So it’s hard to explain how the SARS2 virus picked up its furin cleavage site naturally, whether by mutation or recombination.
That leaves a gain-of-function experiment. For those who think SARS2 may have escaped from a lab, explaining the furin cleavage site is no problem at all.
“Since 1992 the virology community has known that the one sure way to make a virus deadlier is to give it a furin cleavage site at the S1/S2 junction in the laboratory,” writes Dr. Steven Quay, a biotech entrepreneur interested in the origins of SARS2.
“At least eleven gain-of-function experiments, adding a furin site to make a virus more infective, are published in the open literature, including [by] Dr. Zhengli Shi, head of coronavirus research at the Wuhan Institute of Virology.”
4) A Question of Codons
There’s another aspect of the furin cleavage site that narrows the path for a natural emergence origin even further.
As everyone knows (or may at least recall from high school), the genetic code uses three units of DNA to specify each amino acid unit of a protein chain.
When read in groups of 3, the 4 different kinds of DNA can specify 4 x 4 x 4 or 64 different triplets, or codons as they are called.
Since there are only 20 kinds of amino acid, there are more than enough codons to go around, allowing some amino acids to be specified by more than one codon.
The amino acid arginine, for instance, can be designated by any of the six codons CGU, CGC, CGA, CGG, AGA or AGG, where A, U, G and C stand for the four different kinds of unit in RNA.
Here’s where it gets interesting. Different organisms have different codon preferences.
Human cells like to designate arginine with the codons CGT, CGC or CGG. But CGG is coronavirus’s least popular codon for arginine.
Keep that in mind when looking at how the amino acids in the furin cleavage site are encoded in the SARS2 genome.
Now the functional reason why SARS2 has a furin cleavage site, and its cousin viruses don’t, can be seen by lining up (in a computer) the string of nearly 30,000 nucleotides in its genome with those of its cousin coronaviruses, of which the closest so far known is one called RaTG13.
Compared with RaTG13, SARS2 has a 12-nucleotide insert right at the S1/S2 junction. The insert is the sequence T-CCT-CGG-CGG-GC. The CCT codes for proline, the two CGG’s for two arginines, and the GC is the beginning of a GCA codon that codes for alanine.
There are several curious features about this insert but the oddest is that of the two side-by-side CGG codons.
Only 5% of SARS2’s arginine codons are CGG, and the double codon CGG-CGG has not been found in any other beta-coronavirus.
So how did SARS2 acquire a pair of arginine codons that are favored by human cells but not by coronaviruses?
Proponents of natural emergence have an up-hill task to explain all the features of SARS2’s furin cleavage site.
They have to postulate a recombination event at a site on the virus’s genome where recombinations are rare, and the insertion of a 12-nucleotide sequence with a double arginine codon unknown in the beta-coronavirus repertoire, at the only site in the genome that would significantly expand the virus’s infectivity.
“Yes, but your wording makes this sound unlikely — viruses are specialists at unusual events,” is the riposte of David L. Robertson, a virologist at the University of Glasgow who regards lab escape as a conspiracy theory.
“Recombination is naturally very, very frequent in these viruses, there are recombination breakpoints in the spike protein and these codons appear unusual exactly because we’ve not sampled enough.”
Dr. Robertson is correct that evolution is always producing results that may seem unlikely but in fact are not.
Viruses can generate untold numbers of variants but we see only the one-in-a-billion that natural selection picks for survival.
But this argument could be pushed too far. For instance any result of a gain-of-function experiment could be explained as one that evolution would have arrived at in time.
And the numbers game can be played the other way. For the furin cleavage site to arise naturally in SARS2, a chain of events has to happen, each of which is quite unlikely for the reasons given above. A long chain with several improbable steps is unlikely to ever be completed.
For the lab escape scenario, the double CGG codon is no surprise. The human-preferred codon is routinely used in labs. So anyone who wanted to insert a furin cleavage site into the virus’s genome would synthesize the PRRA-making sequence in the lab and would be likely to use CGG codons to do so.
A Third Scenario of Origin
There’s a variation on the natural emergence scenario that’s worth considering. This is the idea that SARS2 jumped directly from bats to humans, without going through an intermediate host as SARS1 and MERS did.
A leading advocate is the virologist David Robertson who notes that SARS2 can attack several other species besides humans. He believes the virus evolved a generalist capability while still in bats. Because the bats it infects are widely distributed in southern and central China, the virus had ample opportunity to jump to people, even though it seems to have done so on only one known occasion.
Dr. Robertson’s thesis explains why no one has so far found a trace of SARS2 in any intermediate host or in human populations surveilled before December 2019.
It would also explain the puzzling fact that SARS2 has not changed since it first appeared in humans — it didn’t need to because it could already attack human cells efficiently.
One problem with this idea, though, is that if SARS2 jumped from bats to people in a single leap and hasn’t changed much since, it should still be good at infecting bats. And it seems it isn’t.
“Tested bat species are poorly infected by SARS-CoV-2 and they are therefore unlikely to be the direct source for human infection,” write a scientific group skeptical of natural emergence.
Still, Dr. Robertson may be onto something. The bat coronaviruses of the Yunnan caves can infect people directly.
In April 2012 six miners clearing bat guano from the Mojiang mine contracted severe pneumonia with Covid-19-like symptoms and three eventually died.
A virus isolated from the Mojiang mine, called RaTG13, is still the closest known relative of SARS2. Much mystery surrounds the origin, reporting and strangely low affinity of RaTG13 for bat cells, as well as the nature of 8 similar viruses that Dr. Shi reports she collected at the same time but has not yet published despite their great relevance to the ancestry of SARS2.
But all that is a story for another time. The point here is that bat viruses can infect people directly, though only in special conditions.
So who else, besides miners excavating bat guano, comes into particularly close contact with bat coronaviruses? Well, coronavirus researchers do.
Dr. Shi says she and her group collected more than 1,300 bat samples during some 8 visits to the Mojiang cave between 2012 and 2015, and there were doubtless many expeditions to other Yunnan caves.
Imagine the researchers making frequent trips from Wuhan to Yunnan and back, stirring up bat guano in dark caves and mines, and now you begin to see a possible missing link between the two places.
Researchers could have gotten infected during their collecting trips, or while working with the new viruses at the Wuhan Institute of Technology.
The virus that escaped from the lab would have been a natural virus, not one cooked up by gain of function.
The direct-from-bats thesis is a chimera between the natural emergence and lab escape scenarios. It’s a possibility that can’t be dismissed.
But against it are the facts that 1) both SARS2 and RaTG13 seem to have only feeble affinity for bat cells, so one can’t be fully confident that either ever saw the inside of a bat; and 2) the theory is no better than the natural emergence scenario at explaining how SARS2 gained its furin cleavage site, or why the furin cleavage site is determined by human-preferred arginine codons instead of by the bat-preferred codons.
Origin of Covid — Following the Clues Nicholas Wade [further]
Where We Are So Far
Neither the natural emergence nor the lab escape hypothesis can yet be ruled out. There is still no direct evidence for either. So no definitive conclusion can be reached.
That said, the available evidence leans more strongly in one direction than the other. Readers will form their own opinion.
But it seems to me that proponents of lab escape can explain all the available facts about SARS2 considerably more easily than can those who favor natural emergence.
It’s documented that researchers at the Wuhan Institute of Virology were doing gain-of-function experiments designed to make coronaviruses infect human cells and humanized mice.
This is exactly the kind of experiment from which a SARS2-like virus could have emerged. The researchers were not vaccinated against the viruses under study, and they were working in the minimal safety conditions of a BSL2 laboratory. So escape of a virus would not be at all surprising.
In all of China, the pandemic broke out on the doorstep of the Wuhan institute. The virus was already well adapted to humans, as expected for a virus grown in humanized mice. It possessed an unusual enhancement, a furin cleavage site, which is not possessed by any other known beta-coronavirus, and this site included a double arginine codon also unknown among beta-coronaviruses.
What more evidence could you want, aside from the presently unobtainable lab records documenting SARS2’s creation?
Proponents of natural emergence have a rather harder story to tell. The plausibility of their case rests on a single surmise, the expected parallel between the emergence of SARS2 and that of SARS1 and MERS.
But none of the expected evidence for such a parallel history has yet emerged. No one has found the bat population that was the source of SARS2, if indeed it ever infected bats.
No intermediate host has presented itself, despite an intensive search by Chinese authorities that included the testing of 80,000 animals.
There is no evidence of the virus making multiple independent jumps from its intermediate host to people, as both the SARS1 and MERS viruses did.
There is no evidence from hospital surveillance records of the epidemic gathering strength in the population as the virus evolved.
There is no explanation of why a natural epidemic should break out in Wuhan and nowhere else.
There is no good explanation of how the virus acquired its furin cleavage site, which no other beta-coronavirus possesses, nor why the site is composed of human-preferred codons. The natural emergence theory battles a bristling array of implausibilities.
The records of the Wuhan Institute of Virology certainly hold much relevant information. But Chinese authorities seem unlikely to release them given the substantial chance that they incriminate the regime in the creation of the pandemic.
Absent the efforts of some courageous Chinese whistle-blower, we may already have at hand just about all of the relevant information we are likely to get for a while.
So it’s worth trying to assess responsibility for the pandemic, at least in a provisional way, because the paramount goal remains to prevent another one. Even those who aren’t persuaded that lab escape is the more likely origin of the SARS2 virus may see reason for concern about the present state of regulation governing gain-of-function research.
There are two obvious levels of responsibility: the first, for allowing virologists to perform gain-of-function experiments, offering minimal gain and vast risk, in minimally inconvenient conditions; the second, if indeed SARS2 was generated in a lab, for allowing the virus to escape and unleash a world-wide by pandemic.
Here are the players who seem most likely to deserve blame.
1. Chinese virologists
First and foremost, Chinese virologists are to blame for performing gain-of-function experiments in mostly BSL2-level safety conditions which were far too lax to contain a virus of unexpected infectiousness like SARS2.
If the virus did indeed escape from their lab, they deserve the world’s censure for a foreseeable accident that has already caused the deaths of 3 million people.
True, Dr. Shi was trained by French virologists, worked closely with American virologists and was following international rules for the containment of coronaviruses.
But she could and should have made her own assessment of the risks she was running. She and her colleagues bear the responsibility for their actions.
I have been using the Wuhan Institute of Virology as a shorthand for all virological activities in Wuhan. There are military and other virological labs there too and their researchers presumably had access to Dr. Shi’s rich collection of bat viruses.
It’s theoretically possible that SARS2 was generated in a Wuhan military lab, perhaps in an attempt to make a vaccine that worked against all coronaviruses.
But until the role of other Chinese virologists is clarified, Dr. Shi is the public face of Chinese work on coronaviruses, and provisionally she and her colleagues will stand first in line for opprobrium.
2. Chinese authorities
China’s central authorities did not generate SARS2 but they sure did their utmost to conceal the nature of the tragedy and China’s responsibility for it.
They suppressed all records at the Wuhan Institute of Virology and closed down its virus databases. They released a trickle of information, much of which may have been outright false or designed to misdirect and mislead.
They did their best to manipulate the WHO’s inquiry into the virus’s origins, and led the commission’s members on a fruitless run-around.
So far they have proved far more interested in deflecting blame than in taking the steps necessary to prevent a second pandemic.
3. The worldwide community of virologists
Virologists around the world are a loose-knit professional community. They write articles in the same journals. They attend the same conferences. They have common interests in seeking funds from governments and in not being overburdened with safety regulations.
Virologists knew better than anyone the dangers of gain-of-function research. But the power to create new viruses, and the research funding obtainable by doing so, was too tempting.
They pushed ahead with gain-of-function experiments. They lobbied against the moratorium imposed on Federal funding for gain-of-function research in 2014 and got it raised in 2017.
The benefits of the research in preventing future epidemics have so far been nil, the risks vast. If research on the SARS1 and MERS viruses could only be done at the BSL3 safety level, it was surely illogical to allow any work with novel coronaviruses at the lesser level of BSL2.
Whether or not SARS2 escaped from a lab, virologists around the world have been playing with fire.
Their behavior has long alarmed other biologists. In 2014 scientists calling themselves the Cambridge Working Group urged caution on creating new viruses.
In prescient words, they specified the risk of creating a SARS2-like virus. “Accident risks with newly created ‘potential pandemic pathogens’ raise grave new concerns,” they wrote.
“Laboratory creation of highly transmissible, novel strains of dangerous viruses, especially but not limited to influenza, poses substantially increased risks. An accidental infection in such a setting could trigger outbreaks that would be difficult or impossible to control.”
When molecular biologists discovered a technique for moving genes from one organism to another, they held a public conference at Asilomar in 1975 to discuss the possible risks.
Despite much internal opposition, they drew up a list of stringent safety measures that could be relaxed in future — and duly were — when the possible hazards had been better assessed.
Or when the CRISPR technique for editing genes was invented, biologists convened a joint report by the U.S., UK and Chinese national academies of science to urge restraint on making heritable changes to the human genome.
Biologists who invented gene drives have also been open about the dangers of their work and have sought to involve the public.
You might think the SARS2 pandemic would spur virologists to re-evaluate the benefits of gain-of-function research, even to engage the public in their deliberations. But no.
Virologists either deride lab escape as a conspiracy theory or say nothing.
They have barricaded themselves behind a Chinese wall of silence which so far is working well to allay, or at least postpone, journalists’ curiosity and the public’s wrath.
Professions that cannot regulate themselves deserve to get regulated by others, and this would seem to be the future that virologists are choosing for themselves.
4. The US Role in Funding the Wuhan Institute of Virology
From June 2014 to May 2019 Dr. Daszak’s EcoHealth Alliance had a grant from the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), part of the National Institutes of Health, to do gain-of-function research with coronaviruses at the Wuhan Institute of Virology.
Whether or not SARS2 is the product of that research, it seems a questionable policy to farm out high-risk research to unsafe foreign labs using minimal safety precautions.
And if the SARS2 virus did indeed escape from the Wuhan institute, then the NIH will find itself in the terrible position of having funded a disastrous experiment that led to death of more than 3 million worldwide, including more than half a million of its own citizens.
The responsibility of the NIAID and NIH is even more acute because for the first three years of the grant to EcoHealth alliance there was a moratorium on gain-of-function research.
Why didn’t the two agencies therefore halt the Federal funding as apparently required to do so by law? Because someone wrote a loophole into the moratorium.
The moratorium specifically barred funding any gain-of-function research that increased the pathogenicity of the flu, MERS or SARS viruses.
But then a footnote on p.2 of the moratorium document states that “An exception from the research pause may be obtained if the head of the USG funding agency determines that the research is urgently necessary to protect the public health or national security.”
This seems to mean that either the director of the NIAID, Dr. Anthony Fauci, or the director of the NIH, Dr. Francis Collins, or maybe both, would have invoked the footnote in order to keep the money flowing to Dr. Shi’s gain-of-function research.
“Unfortunately, the NIAID Director and the NIH Director exploited this loophole to issue exemptions to projects subject to the Pause –preposterously asserting the exempted research was ‘urgently necessary to protect public health or national security’ — thereby nullifying the Pause,” Dr. Richard Ebright said in an interview with Independent Scientific News.
When the moratorium was ended in 2017 it didn’t just vanish but was replaced by a reporting system, the Potential Pandemic Pathogens Control and Oversight (P3CO) Framework, which required agencies to report for review any dangerous gain-of-function work they wished to fund.
According to Dr. Ebright, both Dr. Collins and Dr. Fauci “have declined to flag and forward proposals for risk-benefit review, thereby nullifying the P3CO Framework.”
In his view, the two officials, in dealing with the moratorium and the ensuing reporting system, “have systematically thwarted efforts by the White House, the Congress, scientists, and science policy specialists to regulate GoF [gain-of-function] research of concern.”
Possibly the two officials had to take into account matters not evident in the public record, such as issues of national security. Perhaps funding the Wuhan Institute of Virology, which is believed to have ties with Chinese military virologists, provided a window into Chinese biowarfare research.
But whatever other considerations may have been involved, the bottom line is that the National Institutes of Health was supporting gain-of-function research, of a kind that could have generated the SARS2 virus, in an unsupervised foreign lab that was doing work in BSL2 biosafety conditions.
The prudence of this decision can be questioned, whether or not SARS2 and the death of 3 million people was the result of it.
If the case that SARS2 originated in a lab is so substantial, why isn’t this more widely known? As may now be obvious, there are many people who have reason not to talk about it. The list is led, of course, by the Chinese authorities.
But virologists in the United States and Europe have no great interest in igniting a public debate about the gain-of-function experiments that their community has been pursuing for years.
Nor have other scientists stepped forward to raise the issue. Government research funds are distributed on the advice of committees of scientific experts drawn from universities.
Anyone who rocks the boat by raising awkward political issues runs the risk that their grant will not be renewed and their research career will be ended.
Maybe good behavior is rewarded with the many perks that slosh around the distribution system.
And if you thought that Dr. Andersen and Dr. Daszak might have blotted their reputation for scientific objectivity after their partisan attacks on the lab escape scenario, look at the 2nd and 3rd names on this list of recipients of an $82 million grant announced by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases in August 2020.
The US government shares a strange common interest with the Chinese authorities: neither is keen on drawing attention to the fact that Dr. Shi’s coronavirus work was funded by the US National Institutes of Health.
One can imagine the behind-the-scenes conversation in which the Chinese government says “If this research was so dangerous, why did you fund it, and on our territory too?”
To which the US side might reply, “Looks like it was you who let it escape. But do we really need to have this discussion in public?”
Dr. Fauci is a longtime public servant who served with integrity under President Trump and has resumed leadership in the Biden Administration in handling the Covid epidemic.
Congress, no doubt understandably, may have little appetite for hauling him over the coals for the apparent lapse of judgment in funding gain-of-function research in Wuhan.
To these serried walls of silence must be added that of the mainstream media. To my knowledge, no major newspaper or television network has yet provided readers with an in-depth treatment of the lab escape scenario, such as the one you have just read.
One might think that any plausible origin of a virus that has killed three million people would be a story.
Or that the wisdom of continuing gain-of-function research, regardless of the virus’s origin, would be worth some probing.
Or that the funding of gain-of-function research by the NIH and NIAID during a moratorium on such research would bear investigation.
What accounts for the media’s determined lack of curiosity?
The virologists’ omertà is one reason. Science reporters, unlike political reporters, have little innate skepticism of their sources’ motives; most see their role largely as purveying the wisdom of scientists to the unwashed masses. So when their sources won’t help, these journalists are at a loss.
Another reason is the migration of much of the media toward the left of the political spectrum. Because President Trump said the virus had escaped from a Wuhan lab, editors decided it couldn’t possibly be true.
In their eyes, the issue of the virus’s origin became a matter of ideology and politics, not science, a matter which in any case holds little interest for them.
They joined the virologists in regarding lab escape as a dismissible conspiracy theory.
During the Trump Administration, they had no trouble in rejecting the position of the intelligence services that lab escape could not be ruled out.
But when Avril Haines, President Biden’s director of National Intelligence, said the same thing, she too was largely ignored. Ignoring the issue, for the nation’s editors, had become such a convenient habit.
It avoided having to acknowledge that they had dismissed for months and months a blockbuster story first put under their noses in April 2020.
This is not to argue that editors should have endorsed the lab escape scenario, merely that they should have presented the possibility fully and fairly to their readers, and to this day have failed to do so.
People round the world who have been pretty much confined to their homes for the last year might like a better answer than their media are giving them. Perhaps one will emerge in time.
After all, the more months pass without the natural emergence theory gaining a shred of supporting evidence, the less plausible it may seem.
Perhaps the international community of virologists will come to be seen as a false and self-interested guide.
The common sense perception that a pandemic breaking out in Wuhan might have something to do with a Wuhan lab cooking up novel viruses of maximal danger in unsafe conditions could eventually displace the ideological insistence that whatever Trump said can’t be true.
And then let the reckoning begin.
There is no natural Pathway for the Evolution of COVID19.
Today only the Paid for Propagandists and Virologists and WHO will argue that there is a ''zoonotic'' origin for COVID19.
It is remarkable that the Propaganda is still being propagated more than a year later.
Those who have chosen to propagate this narrative are above the radar and in plain sight and need to be called to account.
The Utter Failure to call these 5th columnists to Account is the clearest Signal that there is no external threat because it is already on the inside.
01-MAR-2020 :: The Origin of the #CoronaVirus #COVID19
“If they can get you asking the wrong questions, they don't have to worry about answers.”― Thomas Pynchon, Gravity's Rainbow
“There's always more to it. This is what history consists of. It is the sum total of the things they aren't telling us.”
“A paranoid is someone who knows a little of what's going on.”
Chapter 10: Russia and Africa: Expanding Influence and Instability @Marshall_Center Joseph Siegle
Russia’s Strategic Goals in Africa
After a year-long siege of Tripoli in western Libya, warlord Khalifa Haftar and his forces beat a hasty retreat in mid-2020 from their collapsing front lines to territory controlled by his proxy coalition of tribal groups and militias in central and eastern Libya.
Along with them were an estimated 1,200 Russian mercenaries with the Wagner Group. They were in Libya as part of a Russian gambit to carve out a zone of influence in this geographically strategic territory linking Africa, the Middle East, and Europe.
Russia has been supporting Haftar’s forces with snipers, Mig-29 and Su-24 fighter jets, SA-22 surface-to-air missile, anti-aircraft systems, and hundreds of flights delivering military logistics since 2019.
Despite the military setback, and subsequent ceasefire and formation of a fragile Government of National Unity, Russia is on track to achieve its key objectives including gaining revenues from oil fields in eastern Libya, naval access to deep-water ports in the eastern Mediterranean, and establishing itself as a powerbroker in a region bordering NATO’s southern flank.
Libya provides a vignette of how Russia pursues its strategic goals in Africa: expanding geopolitical influence through low cost ventures that hold economic windfalls for Moscow and President Vladimir Putin’s close associates.
In this way, Russia’s strategy in Africa is both opportunistic and calculating. It is opportunistic in that it is willing to take risks and quickly deploy mercenary forces to crisis contexts when the opening presents itself, similar to what Moscow did in Syria.
It is calculating in that it aims to expand Russia’s power projection including over strategic chokeholds in the eastern Mediterranean and Suez Canal that could affect NATO force deployments in times of crisis.
It is further calculating in that it sees Africa as a way to balance Western influence through what amounts to asymmetric tactics.
Moscow’s forays into Africa extend the geostrategic playing field. Russia has similarly recognized the polarizing effect that large inflows of Syrian refugees have had on European politics.
Keeping a hand on the spigot regulating refugee flows from Africa, therefore, provides Russia further leverage over Europe.
Russia’s interest in Africa, triggered by Moscow’s isolation following its annexation of Crimea and ventures into eastern Ukraine, also provides an opportunity to advance Putin’s vision of a post-liberal international world order.
This takes the form of challenging democratic norms and the principles of a rules-based international system.
Rather than offering an alternative model, as does Chinese authoritarianism, the Russian strategy appears to be aimed at smearing the perception that democracy offers a more effective, equitable, transparent, or inclusive form of governance.
This worldview, in which all political systems hold moral and governance equivalence, plays to the advantage of Moscow’s elite-focused, transactional, and unregulated model.
The practical application of this worldview in Africa is inherently destabilizing. The undermining of legitimate governments, fomenting social polarization through disinformation campaigns in fragile states, and propping up unconstitutional claims on power tears at the thin social fabric of many African societies.
Coupled with the reported cooption of at least eight African leaders, Russian actions are sidelining the many African voices calling for reform and greater popular participation. The effect is a stymieing of African agency.
Africa, with its weak governments, abundant natural resources, colonial legacies, proximity to Europe, and fifty-four votes at the United Nations General Assembly, provides Russia an easy and attractive theatre where it can advance its interests with limited financial or political costs.
Russia’s approach to expanding its influence in Africa stands in stark contrast to the Biden Administration’s emphasis on democracy as a foundational platform for international security, cooperation on transnational challenges, and development.
Defending freedom, supporting a free press, upholding universal rights, and respecting the rule of law are all central elements of the administration’s strategy to contain and reverse advancing authoritarianism globally.
The new administration’s pledge that the United States will be present and reengage on global governance issues is perhaps most relevant in Africa as it represents an opportunity to fill a void that has been created by the U.S.’s relative absence in recent years.
It is in this vacuum that Russia and other external actors have sought to advance a very different agenda for Africa.
Primary Means by which Russia Seeks to Achieve Goals in Africa
With an economy the size of South Korea or Spain, and little in the way of manufacturing products that are appealing to African markets, Russia manages a modest level of trade with Africa, amounting to roughly $20 billion per year (about one-tenth that of China).
Nor does it offer compelling ideological, social, or cultural resonance for many in Africa. Despite this, Russia has gained outsized influence in Africa in recent years by playing the cards it has well.
Where it has realized most influence – Libya, Central African Republic (CAR), Sudan, Madagascar, Mozambique, and Mali –
Russia has agilely employed a combination of mercenary and disinformation interventions in support of isolated leaders or proxies.
This is the pointy spear of a more conventional set of engagements that aim to foster a positive Russian image while providing a platform to advance its elite-based diplomacy.
The Wagner Group
Mercenaries from the Wagner Group (closely tied to Russia’s military intelligence agency, GRU) have been deployed in Libya, CAR, Sudan, and Mozambique.
In each case, following the Syrian model, the Russians supported a beleaguered leader facing a security challenge in a geographically strategic country with mineral or hydrocarbon assets.
In addition to its Libya intervention, Russia struck a deal with the elected president of CAR, Faustin-Archange Touadéra in 2018, to help stave off a threat from the Islamist Seleka militia groups.
An estimated 400 Wagner troops were deployed to northern CAR. A Russian, Valery Zakharov, became Touadéra’s national security advisor and Minister of Foreign Affairs Charles-Armel Doubane was subsequently sacked for voicing disapproval of undue Russian influence.
Reports suggest Wagner simultaneously negotiated a revenue-sharing deal with the rebels while gaining control of lucrative gold and diamond mines in the north.
Wagner was also involved in repelling a separate rebel offensive on Bangui following flawed elections in December 2020 that kept Touadéra in power with active Russian backing.
Reliant on the Russians for his security, Touadéra’s policy options and the sovereignty of CAR itself are compromised.
In Sudan, Russia was a backer of longtime dictator Omer al-Bashir. This included the deployment of Wagner forces to support the Sudanese military while gaining access to gold mines in the west of the country.
When Bashir was faced with nationwide protests in 2019, the Wagner Group reportedly advised Bashir to crack down harshly on the protesters.
Russia appears to have maintained influence with the military leaders who ultimately toppled Bashir, including maintaining previously negotiated mining agreements.
There are also reports of Wagner having deployed to assist the Mozambican government respond to the rapidly expanding militant Islamist group threat in the north.
Non-coincidentally, the region is home to a multibillion-dollar gem mining operation and liquefied national gas reserves.
In each case, Russia has officially denied a role or even the presence of Russian mercenaries in these contexts.
Typically involving a few hundred forces, the deployments are relatively low-cost, which are likely more than compensated by the fees paid and mineral revenues gained.
In the process, Russia gains greater influence in a region where it had little previous presence.
Disinformation Campaigns to Undermine Support for Democracy
In the aftermath of the August 18, 2020 coup in Mali, jubilant supporters of the military’s action came onto the streets in Bamako to celebrate. Curiously, some of those celebrating were waving Russian flags.
Many others were holding identical pre-printed posters celebrating Malian-Russian cooperation, photos of Vladimir Putin, and messages thanking Russia for its support.
The scene was remarkable in that Russia does not have strong bilateral, cultural, or historical ties with Mali.
While seemingly incongruent, the pro-Russian sentiments were consistent with a line of messaging that began in Bamako a year earlier following the signing of a fuzzy security cooperation agreement between Mali and Russia.
Social media sites blamed the former colonial power, France, for Mali’s militant Islamist insurgency in the north and called for France to pull out the 5,000 troops it had deployed to help combat the jihadists.
These themes were subsequently picked up in protests organized by opposition groups in the months leading to the coup.
While the details behind the sudden pro-Russian messaging in Mali remain to be fully understood, the experience parallels other Russian-sponsored disinformation campaigns in Africa.
These began in 2018 with clunky efforts to influence the presidential election in Madagascar. These were followed by anti-French messaging on social media in CAR subsequent to the signing of a security cooperation agreement with Russia.
The most well-documented instance of Russian disinformation in Africa is in Libya. Starting in January 2019, criticisms of the West, the United Nations, and the UN-backed Government of National Accord became common on Libyan social media networks.
The same pages and users praised Russia’s role as a stabilizing actor. The messaging in Libya also seemed aimed at obscuring the truth and sowing confusion – for both domestic and international audiences.
While mainstream news outlets drew attention to the allegations of systematic human rights violations by Haftar’s forces including the targeting of hospitals and migration centers, the pro-Russian social media platforms contended that all sides were responsible for human rights abuses.
Investigative analysis by Stanford’s Internet Observatory working with Facebook and Twitter was able to identify dozens of social media accounts with hundreds of thousands of followers that presented themselves as authentic domestic voices, but were actually based outside of Libya.
As a result of this investigative work, these fake accounts and pages were eventually shut down.
Russia’s disinformation efforts have begun “franchising” their model by creating or sponsoring African hosts for the pro-Russian and anti-West messaging.
This approach gives the disinformation campaign more cultural context while making it more difficult for ordinary readers to identify inauthentic accounts.
Disinformation operations linked to Yevgeny Prigozhin have now been seen in Angola, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Madagascar, Mozambique and Zimbabwe.
In one model, Russian operatives posing as a fictional news organization, Peace Data, were able to contract unsuspecting journalists in foreign countries to submit content on polarizing topics.
With so many African journalists relying on small paid jobs, this approach is likely a highly effective recruitment method.
In another instance, a Russian-sponsored Ghanaian troll factory was used to foment social polarization.
In South Africa, Russian-sponsored messaging has attempted to inflame racial tensions.
Disinformation messaging is, at times, linked to broader diplomatic support to help friendly African regimes remain in power.
As Guinean President Alpha Conde was seeking an unconstitutional third term, Russian Ambassador Alexander Bregadze said on national television in 2019 that rotating leaders was not necessarily a good thing and that “Constitutions are no dogma, Bible, or Koran…It’s constitutions that adapt to reality, not reality to constitutions.”
Russia’s biggest aluminum producer, Rusal, has expansive bauxite mining interests in Guinea.
Chapter 10: Russia and Africa: Expanding Influence and Instability Joseph Siegle [continued]
The ties between Russia’s influence campaigns in Africa and Moscow’s broader anti-democratic ideological agenda is seen in the courting of African members of the United Nations Security Council.
Africa has three rotating seats (the “A3”) on the fifteen-member Security Council. By wooing these members, Russia has been able to marshal these votes in support of Russian interests.
In January 2019, when the Security Council considered a request from opposition figures in the Democratic Republic of Congo to conduct an investigation into the widely viewed fraudulent presidential election, the A3 (Côte d’Ivoire, Equatorial Guinea, and South Africa, at the time) sided with Russia in blocking the initiative.
Similarly, in April 2019, the A3 supported Russian efforts to block a statement condemning the coup in Sudan invoking the principle of non-intervention.
In that same month, the A3 voted with Russia to block a UK-sponsored resolution calling for a ceasefire in Libya and condemning the actions of Libyan warlord, Khalifa Haftar.
Paradoxically, Russia has thus been able to use African votes at the Security Council to undermine African agency and democratic voices of reform on the continent.
Russia also maintains a series of conventional security, economic, and cultural initiatives in Africa.
The most high-profile of these was the Russia-Africa Summit of October 2019 where Vladimir Putin hosted forty-three African heads of state in Sochi.
At the Summit, Putin promised debt forgiveness and to double trade with Africa over the next five years.
Russia has also realized some soft power gains by promising millions of doses of COVID-19 vaccines to African countries.
Despite these instances of high-profile outreach, conventional engagements do not appear to be where Moscow derives the greatest geopolitical benefit in Africa, at least in the short-term.
Russia has signed roughly two dozen security cooperation agreements in Africa in recent years, a significant expansion from the limited security ties it maintained on the continent over the previous two decades.
One tangible aspect of these agreements has been an attempt by Russia to secure port and base access to support naval operations in the Red Sea and Mediterranean.
Particular attention has been given to the ports of Berbera (Somaliland), Massawa and Assab (Eritrea), Port Sudan (Sudan), and various facilities in Libya.
This suggests an interest to project force along the strategic maritime chokeholds of the Bab-el-Mandeb strait (Djibouti-Yemen), the Suez Canal, and the eastern Mediterranean.
Russia has also explored port access in southern Africa with Mozambique and has conducted joint naval exercises with South Africa.
Russia maintains a modest professional military education program for African military personnel, training roughly 500 African service members per year.
While limited in numbers, these programs provide Russia a platform to impart its interpretation of civil-military relations within the continent.
Emblematic of this potential influence is the link made in the press that several of the senior officers involved in the August 2020 coup in Mali had recently returned from training in Russia.
At the least, these professional military education opportunities provide Russia ongoing access to mid- and senior-level African military officers over the course of their careers.
Russia’s $20 billion in trade in Africa, is heavily imbalanced toward Russian exports of arms and grain to Africa. Mineral, diamond, and oil contracts are typically negotiated by Russian parastatals such as Rosneft and Lukoil.
This is a sector in which Russia brings technical expertise and financing. The details surrounding these contracts, however, are nearly always shrouded in secrecy, making it difficult to assess their true value or the contributions they may bring to African treasuries.
Russia has natural resource deals with roughly twenty African countries.
Russia is the leading exporter of arms to Africa controlling forty-nine percent of the overall arms market in Africa.
Algeria, Angola, Egypt, Morocco, Nigeria, Sudan, Senegal, and Zambia are the leading customers of Russian arms in Africa.
Russian arms are seen as affordable, easy to maintain, and reliable.
African customers are increasingly willing to purchase more sophisticated weaponry from Russia, including fighter aircraft, helicopters, tanks, and air defense systems.It is not uncommon for Russia to leverage its arms as part of an “arms-for-resources” deal.
Russia has also attempted to negotiate nuclear power deals on the continent.
In 2020, Russia’s State Atomic Energy Corporation, Rosatom, provided a $25 billion loan to begin construction of Egypt’s first nuclear power plant – a $60 billion facility.
The hefty price tag and limited technical capacity would seemingly make this a less viable industry for Africa.
Nonetheless, Russia is at varying stages of negotiation with seventeen African countries and has preliminary nuclear project deals in Ethiopia, Rwanda, Sudan, and Zambia.
Russia maintains a series of educational and cultural exchanges with Africa. An estimated 15,000 Africans study at Russian universities mainly from Nigeria, Angola, Morocco, Namibia, and Tunisia.
This represents a steady growth that Moscow says will continue. Given the limited opportunities for tertiary education for many Africans, these scholarships are highly welcomed by the recipients.
They also facilitate loyal and long-term ties to these individuals, who often go on to senior roles in government.
Opportunities, Limits, and Challenges to Russian Engagement in Africa
Russia has been able to quickly expand its presence in Africa precisely because Africa represents a highly permissive environment for Russia’s malign engagements.
The weak legal and regulatory environment in much of Africa means Russia – through Wagner, disinformation, or elite-based diplomacy – largely has free reign in its operations.
This is even more the case since it is the isolated and often authoritarian African governments that welcome Wagner’s interventions.
The reliance on private military contractors means that the financial costs to Moscow are limited.
While Wagner does occasionally incur casualties, these setbacks are not widely reported in Russia and do not trigger popular pressure to curtail Russia’s forays into Africa.
Russia also bears few reputational costs for its interventions. By design, there remains a high level of opacity surrounding the deployment of Russian mercenaries and disinformation campaigns.
Russia’s elite-based diplomacy, moreover, is aimed at coopting and sustaining friendly regimes. Therefore, information of Russia’s meddling in Africa is partial and difficult to substantiate.
Criticism from official African sources is rare. The fact that much of this malign behavior is conducted by third-party actors, furthermore, provides Russia an arms-length posture from which it can deny any knowledge or support for these actions.
This dampens the collective outrage and coordinated action that could constrain further Russian interventions in African affairs.
At the same time, the primary exports that Russia has to offer Africa – mercenaries, arms, and disinformation – are inherently destabilizing. This is a weak basis on which to build long-term relationships.
While this does not appear to be a concern for Moscow or the African interlocutors who seek Russia’s aid, the reputational costs of being perceived as a spoiler and solely pursuing transactional interests will over time undercut Russia’s credibility.
Rather, Russia is perceived as a partner of last resort – one in which you turn to in times of desperation or when interested in skirting financial or human rights norms.
Implications for Africa and the West
A common assessment of Russia’s engagement in Africa is that since Moscow is not spending that much on these initiatives, the havoc it can create is marginal. That is, Russia may be a nuisance but not a priority concern.
That assessment, however, overlooks the level of instability that can be created in Africa with a relatively small level of resources.
Given Africa’s generally underfunded governments, weak states, and lax oversight capacity, Russia’s pursuit of low-cost narrow objectives – coopting political leaders and accessing resources – can have profound impacts on the politics, sovereignty, and stability of the continent.
Leaders in CAR, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Guinea, Congo, Madagascar, Mozambique, South Sudan, Sudan, and Zimbabwe are all seen as being in some way compromised by Moscow.
Disinformation campaigns in other African countries are adding further strains to already fragile political systems.
Ironically, in instances where Wagner has deployed troops to quell instability, instability is likely to persist.
Being a profit-seeking entity, Wagner has a strong incentive to see a manageable level of instability persist, thereby justifying Wagner’s perpetuation.
Since these arrangements often also entail Russian access to resources, arms sales, and heightened political leverage, Russian interests in Africa, cynically, are advanced by ongoing instability.
African leaders who have embraced Russia’s “mercenary diplomacy” have effectively ceded a degree of African sovereignty to Russia, much as has happened in Syria.
As in other instances where vassal states are created, this arrangement is likely to endure for a long time as these African leaders and countries will find it difficult to extricate themselves from their reliance on Moscow.
Geo-strategically, if Russia becomes established as a key power broker in Libya with unfettered naval and air base access in the eastern Mediterranean it is in a stronger position to threaten Europe’s southern borders and disrupt NATO maritime movements in times of crisis.
Sirte is only 700 miles from Rome. Russia is already staking its claim for untapped oil and gas reserves off the Libyan coast.
Russia’s interest in securing port access in the Red Sea expands its capacity to be a disruptive force for naval and maritime passage along Africa’s east coast, as well.
Russian influence in Libya and the Sahel provides Russia access to key nodes of African migration and human trafficking routes.
Russia thus has the ability to provoke humanitarian and political crises for Europe while challenging spheres of historically European (primarily French) influence in Africa.
Another strategic implication of Russian engagement in Africa is the weakening of democracy. This is partly an instrumental outcome of Russia’s clientelistic model of coopting African leaders through opaque agreements disadvantageous to African countries.
In the process, popular participation and African agency more generally, are sidelined. This is reinforced by an ideological message from Russian representatives and disinformation that presidential term limits need not be respected, truth is irrelevant, and democracy affords no advantages over authoritarianism.
A deterioration in democratic norms has direct implications for African security and development. Nearly all of Africa’s conflicts and forcibly displaced populations originate in authoritarian governments.
Since the continent’s democracies have realized substantially higher levels of stability, sustained growth, rule of law, control of corruption, and living conditions, Russian efforts to roll back democratic governance norms will have far-reaching second and third-order effects.
In Russia’s dual-pronged official/unofficial strategy in Africa, it is the unofficial “mercenary diplomacy” strategy that is of most concern.
This approach, which draws on Russia’s “comparative advantages” in Africa – the willingness to deploy mercenaries, disinformation, arms sales, and natural resource extraction through opaque compacts – is inherently destabilizing for the continent.
In short, African stability is not a priority for Russia. As it is largely pursued on a patron-client basis with compromised African leaders, moreover, Russia’s unofficial strategy runs counter to the interests of the vast majority of African citizens.
The United States' security and economic interests in Africa are advanced by long-term partnerships with stable, democratic governments committed to the rule of law.
It is these contexts that are most conducive to domestic security, private sector investments that generate jobs and profits, and cooperation against threats to the international order.
There is, accordingly, a high level of overlap between African and American interests. This point was noted by President Biden in his inaugural foreign policy address,
“[America’s global power and abiding advantage is rooted in advancing] democratic values: defending freedom, championing opportunity, upholding universal rights, respecting the rule of law, and treating every person with dignity.”
With broad diplomatic, foreign direct investment ($45 billion), trade ($65 billion), development ($10 billion), security ($600 million), and cultural ties with Africa, U.S. engagement on the continent is an order of magnitude greater than that of Russia.
Despite these extensive initiatives, there is a common perception that the United States has not been playing its historical leadership role in recent years, creating a power vacuum on the continent that Russia has tried to fill.
A first priority for U.S. engagement in Africa, therefore, is to clearly articulate the shared interests and vision that the United States holds with Africa.
In so doing, the United States can underscore that U.S. policy in Africa encompasses far more than simply countering Russia (or China).
A second priority is for the U.S. to weigh-in on Russia’s geo-strategic positioning on the continent, particularly in Libya where the establishment of a Russian foothold poses a long-term threat to NATO.
This does not mean that the U.S. should deploy forces to what is already a highly complex theatre.
However, it should commit to supporting United Nations-backed stabilization efforts, while further isolating the influence of rebel warlord, Khalifa.
Most pertinently, the United States is needed to help unify the efforts of European and NATO allies in this context. The lack of a cohesive European response has enabled Russia to expand its leverage in this strategic region.
A third priority is for the United States, working with African and international partners, to be more diplomatically active in conflict mitigation efforts. Countries such as CAR, Mali, Mozambique, and Sudan face genuine security challenges.
If these countries perceive their security threats as spinning out of control and that they lack other options, they may be inclined to strike a deal with Moscow to send Wagner.
These deals almost inevitably compromise the sovereignty of the African host and are difficult to terminate. It is in the interest of the United States and African stability to find options other than Russian mercenaries.
To be clear, the United State should not be drawn directly into these conflicts. By working with host nations and regional bodies, though, U.S. diplomatic, technical, and financial support can serve as a stabilizing counterweight to Russian destabilization.
The U.S. must not solely play the role of firefighter to Russia’s arson in Africa.
The United States should help by exposing and confronting Russian misbehavior. Yet, it is African governmental, media, civil society, and business leaders that must ultimately defend African interests against external spoilers.
Similarly, the U.S. must work more closely with African members of the UN Security Council so that shared interests of security and development are advanced at these international fora.
A fourth priority is to help Africa fight Russian disinformation campaigns, which aim to foment political and ethnic polarization, distrust, and instability.
Best practices from the Baltics, which have developed sophisticated counter-Russian disinformation methods, have relied on coordinated efforts between commercial technology companies, news services, social media platforms, and government agencies.
Some of these efforts tap networks of citizen volunteers to seek out and counter fake news.
Africa is starting from a much lower institutional capacity to combat these influences. Yet, young Africans have demonstrated great talent and innovation in adapting new digital technologies for the public good.
U.S. support can strengthen the capacity of African governmental and non-governmental fact-checking and digital detective firms to identify fake Russian-sponsored accounts, trolls, and disinformation campaigns.
In Africa, with ruling parties often the direct beneficiaries of Russian disinformation campaigns, such efforts may need to be organized via regional hubs rather than on a country-by-country basis.
A focal point for U.S. efforts to counter disinformation is the interagency Global Engagement Center based in the State Department.
Established in 2016, the Center has mostly focused on countering terrorist messaging. These efforts need to be further developed to respond to Russian disinformation globally, especially in Africa.
The United States also needs stronger outreach to social media firms like Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube to elevate their efforts in exposing and taking down disinformation campaigns using their platforms in Africa.
Facebook, in particular, has deemphasized mitigation efforts in countries outside North America and Europe.
The destabilizing effects of Russian disinformation in Africa, however, are amplified given the high starting levels of fragility.
The upshot is that if there is to be a change in Russian support for disinformation campaigns in Africa, Russia must bear greater reputational and financial costs.
Responses to Russian disinformation, thus far, have not nearly been proportionate to the damages exacted by Russian actions, which include election meddling, subverting democracy, propping up illegitimate leaders, and inflaming tensions in already fragile countries.
All of these destabilizing actions have real and long-lasting political, economic, and human costs.
U.S. Treasury sanctions on Yevgeny Prigozhin for his destabilizing activities in Sudan and CAR are useful and should be expanded.
While such sanctions may not immediately curtail Prigozhin and his allies, they serve an important purpose of signaling the criminal nature of Prighozin’s activities on the continent to African governments and media.
Not only does this raise awareness but it demonstrates to African interlocutors that there are potentially crippling costs tied to these engagements.
To reinforce this point, U.S. sanctions should also extend to the networks of Russian banks and natural resource parastatals as well as African beneficiaries who are enabling this malignant behavior.
Denying these firms access to international financial markets will increase the tangible costs to Russia and create stronger incentives to change course.
In recent years, the United States has passed legislation that creates a stronger legal platform from which to pursue legal and financial remedies for destabilizing activity sponsored by Russia or other international actors.
The Global Magnitsky Act allows the executive branch to impose visa bans and freeze the assets on individuals anywhere in the world responsible for committing human rights violations or acts of significant corruption.
The passing of the European Magnitsky Act established in December 2020 broadens the means to apply such penalties in a coordinated manner in defense of democracy and human rights.
The Global Fragility Act calls for all parts of the U.S. government to coordinate strategies to prevent violence and extremism and to focus foreign assistance on averting conflict in fragile countries.
The Act includes provisions for punitive actions to be taken against political actors that drive instability.
These tools as well as the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, the Countering American Adversaries through Sanctions Act and laws pertaining to transnational criminal organizations provide the United States with a menu of legal means of increasing penalties on Russia for its destabilizing activity in Africa.
In this way, the United States can help Africa become less of a permissive environment for Russia and other external actors seeking to exploit Africa’s vulnerabilities at the expense of African stability, sovereignty, and democracy. This is in both African and U.S. interests.
28 OCT 19 :: From Russia with Love
Putin made his ‘’late-cycle’’ Play for Africa hosting a Russia Africa Summit in the Black Sea resort of Sochi.
“Late to the party: Russia’s return to Africa.” tweeted @pstronski.
Putin in an interview with state-run news service Tass, said “Indeed, interest in developing the relations with African countries is currently visible not only on the part of Western Europe, the US and [China] but also on the part of India, Turkey, the Gulf states, Japan, the Republic of Korea, Israel and Brazil.
“This is not accidental, as Africa increasingly becomes a continent of opportunities''
‘’These opportunities include natural resources, infrastructure development and increasing consumer demand from a growing population, Putin specified.
But, he said, Russia was going to be a different kind of superpower, one that does not engage in “pressure, intimidation and blackmail” to “exploit” sovereign African governments.
“Our African agenda is positive and future-oriented. We do not ally with someone against someone else, and we strongly oppose any geopolitical games involving Africa.”
Putin’s linguistics is an art form and I imagine he buttressed the above points by discreetly showing his visitors a photo of a dead Gaddafi and maybe he dwelled a little on the bottle and then a Photo of a spritely Bashar Assad and would surely not even have had to ask the question; what’s the difference?
Between 2006 and 2018 Russia’s trade with Africa increased by 335 per cent, more than both China’s and India’s according to the Espresso Economist.
Russia is now Africa’s leading supplier of arms.
According to the Swedish think tank SIPRI, between 2012 and 2016 Russia had become the largest supplier of arms to Africa, accounting for 35 percent of arms exports to the region, way ahead of China (17 per cent), the United States (9.6 per cent), and France (6.9 per cent).
Exports of Russian-made weapons and military hardware to Africa amount currently to $4.6 billion annually, with a contract portfolio worth over $50 billion.
The Russian arms trade with Africa doubled compared with 2012.
Russia’s clout on African soil runs on many tracks, and its expansion is geared primarily towards hybrid activities.
In Moscow’s offer for Africa are mercenaries, military equipment, mining investments, nuclear power plants, and railway connections.
“Russia regards Africa as an important and active participant in the emerging polycentric architecture of the world order and an ally in protecting international law against attempts to undermine it,” said Russian deputy foreign minister Mikhail Bogdanov back in November 2018.
Recently we have seen Russian interventions in the Central African Republic (CAR)
In July this year, a three-minute animated video appeared on YouTube. Called Lionbear, the cartoon was aimed at children and told the story of a brave but beleaguered Central African lion, who was fighting a losing battle against a pack of hungry hyenas.
Luckily the lion had a friend who came to the rescue — the strong Russian bear. The bear fights off the hyenas brings peace to the land and everyone lives happily ever after.
The video was produced by Lobaye Invest, a Russian mining company with links to the Wagner Group.
Lobaye runs a radio station in the CAR, and organised a Miss CAR pageant. But, as a CNN investigation reported this year, Lobaye also funds the 250 Russian mercenaries who are stationed in the country.
“The dividend for Lobaye Invest: generous concessions to explore for diamonds and gold in a country rich in mineral wealth,” it reported.
The Russian mercenaries are officially there to train the CAR’s national army.
But their activities in the country are shrouded in secrecy, and when three Russian journalists travelled there to investigate they were murdered.[Mail and Guardian Simon Allison]
I would argue Putin’s timing is exquisite and optimal and his Model has an exponential ROI.
Russia’s clout on African soil runs on many tracks, and its expansion is geared primarily towards hybrid activities.
In Moscow’s offer for Africa are mercenaries, military equipment, mining investments, nuclear power plants, and railway connections.
Andrew Korybko writes Moscow invaluably fills the much-needed niche of providing its partners there with “Democratic Security”, or in other words, the cost-effective and low-commitment capabilities needed to thwart colour revolutions and resol- ve unconventional Wars (collectively referred to as Hybrid War).
To simplify, Russia’s “political technologists” have reportedly devised bespoke solutions for confronting incipient and ongoing color revolutions, just like its private military contractors (PMCs) have supposedly done the same when it comes to ending insurgencies.
Once we look through the Optics of two nuclear-capable supersonic bombers belonging to the Russian Air Force landing in Pretoria for the aircraft’s first-ever landing on the African continent and, according to an embassy official, only the second country in which it has made a public appearance outside of Russia.
The first was Venezuela. Then we need to see this move for what it is. It is meaningful.
Where Xi is fed up and speaks about the ‘’The End of Vanity’’ because the ROI [outside commodities and telecoms for China] is negative, Putin has created a hybrid model with an exponential ROI. I would imagine he is on speed dial.