Mozambique Regains Control of Islamic State-Afflicted Northern Province With Rwandan Help

Rwandan Patrol Mocimboa

Rwandan Patrol Mocimboa.

“Under the watchful eye of heavily armed Mozambican and Rwandan soldiers who guard the streets, the regular activity in the town center has revived again.”

In March 2023, Portuguese Radio and Television, which produces perspectives from Portugal and the broader Portuguese-speaking world, published the excerpted article noting that Mozambique northern province of Cabo Delgado, which two years ago was under siege by militants affiliated with the Islamic State (IS), is now back under the control of the Mozambican government. The key turning point was the intervention of Rwandan troops to support Mozambican military personnel.[i] Mozambique-Rwanda military forces continue to work together in Cabo Delgado to ensure that IS militants do not return. Although the article states that civilians have expressed their gratitude for the newfound security in Cabo Delgado, civilians also claim that the violence is still close by in towns such as Palma. Roads leading into rural areas remain at risk, and militants still erect flash checkpoints on roadways and abduct, steal from, and even kill civilians. According to the article, while the military’s counterinsurgency strategy has been a success, there has been no economic revival plan for Cabo Delgado, which could impede future progress. While some businesses have benefitted from the renewed security, there are still few jobs and significant unemployment among Cabo Delgado’s working-age population. As the article asserts, if the counterinsurgency strategy does not include or result in an economic revival in Cabo Delgado, jobless disaffected youth may still turn to the militants out of economic desperation.


“Vida regressa a Palma sob patrulha, dois anos após ataque no norte de Moçambique” (Life returns to Palma under patrols two years after the attack in northern Mozambique),” (popular Portuguese-language broadcaster covering Lusaphone affairs), 9 March 2023.

Under the watchful eye of heavily armed Mozambican and Rwandan soldiers who patrol the streets, the regular activity in the town center has revived again. Some contractors already announced their return to Afungi, the site of the energy facilities, in the middle of this year, but decisions from the French oil company TotalEnergies are pending.Meanwhile, the population complains about the lack of opportunities to benefit them from the largest private investment in Africa…. Unemployment and lack of opportunities – namely in emerging investments linked to gas – have been indicated by several observers as some of the reasons why young people are recruited into the ranks of the rebels in northern Mozambique.


[i] The Rwanda Defence Force (RDF) entered Cabo Delgado in northern Mozambique in 2021 to combat the IS-loyal militants in the country. The RDF succeeded in reducing the violence in much of Cabo Delgado and training Mozambican troops in counterinsurgency and, as a result, the RDF deployment period has been extended. For more on Rwanda’s military interventions in the region, see: Brendon J. Cannon & Federico Donelli, “Rwanda’s Military Deployments in Sub-Saharan Africa: A Neoclassical Realist Account,” The International Spectator, 58:1, 109-127, (2023).

Image Information:

Image: Rwandan Patrol Mocimboa.
Attribution: CC x 2.0

Al-Qaeda Leader in Maghreb Celebrates French Departure, Claims No Plans To Attack French Homeland

Map of West Africa

Map of West Africa.

“AQIM considers it a victory that French troops withdrew from both Mali in August last year and Burkina Faso in February 2023, calling it a vindication of 20 years of jihad in the region.”

In what has been hailed as a groundbreaking interview, France24 journalist Wassim Nasr was recently granted an interview with Abu Obeida Youssef al-Aanabi, the head of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). AQIM, which has been an al-Qaeda branch since 2006/2007,[i] is also the parent group of Jama’a Nusrat ul-Islam wa al-Muslimin’, which has contributed to the profound uptick in jihadist violence in the Sahel region of West Africa in the past five years.[ii] The interview, described in the text and published as a video via France24, offers unparalleled insights into AQIM’s current worldview. In the interview, al-Aanabi claims that one of the group’s greatest successes has been to help precipitate the withdrawal of most French military forces from the wider Sahel over the past two years, calling it “vindication of twenty years of jihad in the region.” Moreover, when asked about AQIM’s plans to attack the French homeland, al-Aanabi relayed that the group has no plans to do so, noting frustration that Western countries failed to understand that its qualms against France primarily stem from the latter’s activities in West Africa. He also stated his opinion that the Sahel is currently “the epicenter of jihad,” and that there were no limits to AQIM’s expansion. Finally, al-Aanabi noted that the group is at war with the Islamic State in the region and views the entrance of Russian Wagner mercenaries as being equally colonial as the French presence.


Nasr, Wassim, “Le chef d’Aqmi, Abou Obeida Youseelf al-Annabi répond à 17 questions de France 24 (The head of AQIM Abou Obeida Youseelf al-Annabi responds to 17 questions from France 24),” France 24, (centrist state-owned French news oulet), 6 March 2023.

Algerian Islamist Abu Obeida Youssef al-Aanabi, the current leader of al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), granted an exclusive interview to FRANCE 24 in which he officially confirmed his group is holding French journalist Olivier Dubois, who was kidnapped in Mali in 2021, and discussed the role of jihadism in the Sahel….

When asked whether AQIM was planning attacks in France, al-Aanabi said his group’s dispute with France was limited to local issues in the Sahel and wider Africa. He went on to criticise Western leaders for failing to acknowledge that AQIM’s interests were exclusive to Africa. 

He said AQIM considers it a victory that French troops withdrew from both Mali in August last year and Burkina Faso in February 2023, calling it a vindication of 20 years of jihad in the region. But Nasr points out that the French withdrawal was due to friction with the Malian junta as well as the arrival of Russian mercenaries. Al-Aanabi said the increasing presence of the Wagner Group was no better, calling them yet another colonial force. 

Al-Aanabi touted the success of AQIM’s recruitment strategy in the Sahel, describing the region as the “epicentre” of jihad today, according to Nasr. Moreover, he said, there are no limits to the group’s possibilities for expansion. Al-Aanabi went on to say that AQIM is essentially at war in the Sahel with the Islamic State group, whom he views as “deviants”.  Al-Aanabi has been on the US watchlist of “international terrorists” since September 2015.


[i] For more on global reactions to the death of the leader of al-Qaeda, Ayman al-Zawahiri, in July 2022, see: Jason Warner, “Global Reactions Vary After Death of Al-Qaeda Leader Al-Zawahiri,” OE Watch, 09-2022.

[ii] For more on the nature of the Sahel as an epicenter of global terrorism, see: Jason Warner, “Coastal West African States Brace for Wave of Terrorism from the Sahel,” OE Watch, 10-2022.; Jason Warner, “African Leaders, UN See Terrorism in the Sahel as Dire,” OE Watch, 11-2022.; Jason Warner, “Mali Defends Reliance on Russian Counterterrorism Assistance,” OE Watch, 03-2023.

Image Information:

Image: Map of West Africa.
Attribution: JRC, European Commission, CC BY 4.0

CAR Joins Mali in Accusing France of Funding Terrorists

View from Bangui, Central African Republic.

View from Bangui, Central African Republic.

“The Central African Republic has been subjected since its independence to systematic looting facilitated by the political instability maintained by certain Western countries or their companies which finance armed terrorist groups.”

The leader of the Central African Republic (CAR), Faustin-Archange Touadéra, is taking a now-familiar tack in the region by accusing French entities of funding insurgents in the country. As described in the first accompanying article from the pan-African news outlet Jeune Afrique, at a recent UN meeting of the Least Developed Countries in Doha,Touadéra offered a fiery speech denouncing his country’s destabilization thanks to “certain Western countries or their companies which finance armed terrorist groups.”Of note is the inclusion of “or their companies” in this statement. The second excerpted article, from the pan-African news aggregator Le Journal de l’Afrique, reveals that the French beverage manufacturer Castel is being investigated for potentially having funded rebels in CAR to allow Castel to maintain production there. Touadéra’s decision to implicitly claim that France and its companies are funding insurgents in the country may sound familiar: the president of the transition government in Mali, Assimi Goïta, did essentially the same thing during a speech to the UN General Assembly in September 2022.[i] Anti-French, and relatively newly pro-Russian sentiment, is most visibly taking hold in Mali[ii] and Burkina Faso,[iii] but it is also evident in CAR, which likewise employs Russian Wagner Group mercenaries. These three countries, along with Guinea, are now all seemingly establishing closer ties, especially in the security realm. Denouncing France as the source of instability would appear to be a tactic that will continue to be used by all four in the future.


“Faustin-Archange Touadéra charge les Occidentaux (Fausting-Achange Touadera accues the West),” Jeune Afrique (centrist pan-African news site), 6 March 2023.

During a summit of Least Developed Countries (LDCs) under the aegis of the UN in Doha, Central African President Faustin-Archange Touadéra violently attacked Westerners, accusing them of “maintaining political instability” to plunder the wealth of the country and prevent its development. The Head of State deemed his country “a victim of geostrategic aims linked to its natural resources”.

The Central African Republic [CAR] has been subjected since its independence to systematic looting facilitated by the political instability maintained by certain Western countries” and “armed terrorist groups whose leaders are foreign mercenaries”, he denounced. “The recurring attacks” of these groups aim to “make the country ungovernable, to prevent the State from exercising its right of sovereignty over natural reserves and its legitimate right to self-determination”.

Omar Lucien Koffi, “Centrafricaine: Touadéra dénonce le ‘pillage’ de l’Occident (Central African Republic: Touadéra dencounces the ‘pillage’ by the West),” Le Journal de l’Afrique (pan-African news aggregator), 6 March 2023.  

In Bangui, in the Central African Republic, pro-government activists took to the streets of the capital to denounce the “Machiavellian plan of Westerners” against their country. Among the targets of the demonstrators: Castel. The beverage giant has been the target of an investigation by the French anti-terrorist prosecutor’s office since last summer after revelations about alleged remuneration for the Unit for Peace in the Central African Republic (UPC) by Castel, which had thus been able to continue its activities in Ouaka province, despite rebel control. In February, several campaigns were launched against Castel, and more precisely its local subsidiary, the Mocaf brewery, under the leadership of Wagner.

From now on, it is no longer simply Castel that poses a problem, but the West. And now, it is no longer a question of a simple campaign on social networks or in the streets of Bangui. This Sunday, March 5, it is the President of the Republic, Faustin-Archange Touadéra, who attacked the West. A resounding exit, in full United Nations Conference on the least developed countries. And which echoes a discourse that is increasingly widespread throughout the continent.

“The Central African Republic has been subjected since its independence to systematic looting facilitated by the political instability maintained by certain Western countries or their companies which finance armed terrorist groups whose main leaders are foreign mercenaries”, launched Touadéra who considers that the CAR is a “victim of geostrategic aims linked to its natural resources.” Thus, “foreign interference” would keep the CAR in “dependence, insecurity, and instability,” to better plunder the wealth of the country, therefore.But at the same time, the president of the Central African Republic is asking for the relaunch of international budgetary aid, while his government has had to do without it since it has been in contact with the Russian group Wagner. Touadéra met Emmanuel Macron in Libreville, during the One Forest Summit, on March 2.


[i] See: Jason Warner, “Mali Claims France Funded Terrorists: France Denies,” OE Watch, 10-2022.

[ii] See: Jason Warner, “Mali Defends Reliance on Russian Counterterrorism Assistance,” OE Watch, 3-2023. 

[iii] See: Jason Warner, “Burkina Faso: A Bellwether on Russia and French Presence,” OE Watch, 11-2022.; Jason Warner, “Burkina Faso Fights Terrorism with Recruits and Russia,” OE Watch, 02-2023.

Image Information:

Image: View from Bangui, Central African Republic
Attribution:  Non-Commercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Colombia’s “Total Peace” Negotiations Face New Hurdles

Senate President Roy Barreras at the inauguration ceremony of Colombian President Gustavo Petro.

Senate President Roy Barreras at the inauguration ceremony of Colombian President Gustavo Petro.

“The president of the Congress, Roy Barreras, expressed his concern about the rumors that are gaining more strength every day and that are related to alleged charges that include Nicolás Petro and the efforts of drug traffickers to benefit from the “total peace” policy of President Gustavo Petro.”

Colombia’s President Gustavo Petro arrived in office in the summer of 2022 promising a radical change in the way the government deals with criminal organizations, touting a broad-based peace plan with the country’s remaining guerrilla groups. Petro calls his plan “Total Peace,” which seeks to end six decades of armed conflict that has left hundreds of thousands dead.[i] According to the excerpted article in Columbia’s major newspaper, El Tiempo, Columbia’s Attorney General has opened an investigation into Petro’s son, Nicolás, as well as the President’s brother, Juan Fernando, for alleged corruption related to the peace negotiations. The two men stand accused of accepting bribes from criminal organizations seeking to profit from the peace negotiations before they started. Columbia’s largest weekly, Semana, also reported that Roy Barreras, Colombia’s Senate president and a key ally of Petro’s, has asked the government to suspend the talks. Barreras’ support of Petro’s Total Peace plan is critical since reduced sentences to members of criminal organizations who surrender themselves, hand over earnings, and reveal drug trafficking routes cannot be granted without Colombia’s Congress first passing enabling legislation granting the authority to reduce sentences. The investigation of Petro’s son and brother, as well as Barreras’ apparent shift away from the Total Peace plan, cast serious doubt on Petro’s signature policy of achieving peace with guerrillas and criminal organizations, with which the government has already entered a ceasefire.


“Procuraduría le abre investigación a Nicolás Petro por acusaciones sobre campaña (Attorney General opens investigation into Nicolás Petro for campaign accusations),” El Tiempo (the daily with the highest circulation in Colombia), 3 March 2023.

The ex-wife of Nicolás Petro assured in an interview…that President Petro’s eldest son allegedly received money from Santander Lopesierra, “El hombre Malboro” and Alfonso “El Turco Hilsaca,” both former defendants of Colombian justice, for the presidential campaign… According to the woman’s version, Petro’s son received them at his apartment in Barranquilla and there they gave him one billion pesos.

“Roy Barreras le pide al presidente Petro suspender cualquier tipo de diálogo con narcotraficantes (Roy Barreras asks President Petro to suspend any type of dialogue with drug traffickers),” Semana (the largest weekly magazine in Colombia), 6 March 2023.  The president of the Congress, Roy Barreras, expressed his concern about the rumors that are gaining more strength every day and that are related to alleged charges that include Nicolás Petro and the efforts of drug traffickers to benefit from the “total peace” policy of President Gustavo Petro. For this reason, Barreras asked the Colombian president to stop negotiations and thus any possibility that there are people who profit from peace…“I ask to suspend the official or unofficial negotiation dialogue with the drug traffickers, as it must be clear that they are not necessary,” he said.


[i]For an understanding of the broad contours of Petro’s plan, see: Ryan Berg, “Colombia Deemphasizing Coca Eradication in Counterdrug Strategy,” OE Watch, 03-2023,; Ryan Berg, “Colombia’s Congress Authorizes “Total Peace” Negotiation With Guerrilla and Criminal Groups,” OE Watch, 01-2023,

Image Information:

Image: Senate President Roy Barreras at the inauguration ceremony of Colombian President Gustavo Petro
Attribution: Flickr, CC BY 2.0

Russian Companies Using Central Asian Migrant Workers in Occupied Ukraine

Migrant workers in Moscow, Russia.

Migrant workers in Moscow, Russia.

But, digging trenches for money and being citizens of another country, they violate the laws and customs of war and become criminals.

Russia has stated that it will not draft migrant workers in the country and send them to fight in Ukraine. While this has been largely true, the accompanying excerpted article from the Russian-language independent news website Kloop reports that Central Asians are doing non-lethal work on Russia’s behalf within the zone of conflict in Ukraine.[i] According to the article, Russia has contracted workers from Central Asia to construct fortifications in occupied areas of Ukraine. The article notes that private military contractor the Wagner Group, which is one of the Russian companies involved in building defensive structures in Ukraine for use by the Russian military, has recruited migrant workers to work there with promises of a good salary and other benefits. The article also mentions how “the work did not require documents,” an incentive for Central Asians looking to work for Russian entities without needing to officially register to do so.

Such contracted work in Ukraine carries many risks. The article confirms the deaths of 84 workers in Luhansk who had been building such defensive structures, though it is unknown if this number included any Central Asian citizens. Other non-combat hazards of working in occupied Ukraine include poor working conditions, less pay than promised, and possible prosecution if they are captured by Ukraine. Such migrant workers could also face charges in their home countries, including possible loss of citizenship in Kyrgyzstan. Indeed, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan have repeatedly warned their citizens that they can face prosecution in their home countries for serving as combatants in the war in Ukraine, with exceptions for those who hold Russian citizenship and are required to serve in the Russian armed forces. While the article is concerned about the fate of these migrant workers, there have been only a few examples of the Kyrgyzstani and Uzbekistani governments opening a case against an individual for fighting in Ukraine, and in each case these individuals fought for Ukraine against Russian forces. The article concludes that migrants are likely to continue working in Ukraine and that authorities in Central Asia will not interfere as the work provides an economic benefit Because of the importance of remittances to the economies in the region.


“Тюрьма и смерть за копейки. Мигрантов зовут рыть окопы для российской армии (Jail and death for a kopek. Migrant workers are being called to dig trenches for the Russia army),” Kloop (independent Russian-language news website in Kyrgyzstan), 2 March 2023.

Migrant workers from Central Asia are being called to construct trenches for the Russian military, including in the occupied territories of Ukraine. They are offered up to 6,000 rubles a day for this work. But the real working conditions do not justify this money: dozens of workers are killed by the Armed Forces of Ukraine, employers are deceptive, and in their home countries, migrants are threatened with jail time and loss of citizenship.

…It was announced in October 2022 by the founder of the Wagner Group, businessman Yevgeny Prigozhin, that Russia will build defensive structures along the front line. And since November, Russian websites and Telegram groups of migrant workers from Central Asian countries started publishing announcements about the recruitment of workers to dig trenches, dugouts, anti-tank ditches, and strengthen structures for the military… Announcements about the recruitment of workers for the “arrangement of defensive lines” appeared on the Russian websites Headhunter, Avito, and at least two regional-scale announcement sites…

Employers are willing to pay from 45,000 to 180,000 rubles a month for the risk, or from 300 rubles ($4) per hour. In addition, they promised a lot of free things: travel, medical examination, accommodation, three meals a day. The requirements are to be in good health and between 20 and 50 years of age…A feature of some of the announcements in these groups was that the work did not require documents…The authors of ads in telegram groups for migrants also offered help from the employer in obtaining Russian citizenship if the employee worked on the “trenches” for at least four months.

…84 workers recruited from Novosibirsk, who responded to these vacancies, died from the strike of the Armed Forces of Ukraine on the occupied territory of the Luhansk region…Whether among them came from Central Asia or not, is still unknown…President Vladimir Putin, at a meeting with the government, confirmed that workers who were building “defensive structures” in the occupied territories had died.

In addition to the danger of dying from shelling from Ukraine, other troubles await the workers: unsanitary conditions, unheated living quarters and “the attitude is worse than for cattle.” This was told by “Present Time”…The Baza telegram channel also writes about this, citing one of the Tajiks, Aminjon. According to him, they were paid three times less than the promised amount. Other workers were even less fortunate: one had an attack of appendicitis, and another lost a hand, but they did not receive any adequate medical care. After Aminjon went to the police, they began to call him with threats, now he is afraid to leave the house.

Migrants can be prosecuted for at least four criminal offenses for digging trenches for the Russian military, especially in the occupied territories of Ukraine, human rights activist and migrant rights specialist Valentina Chupyk warns.

According to her, if such migrants are caught by the Ukrainian military, they will be tried for illegally crossing the border of Ukraine, as they dig trenches in the occupied territories – for this they face two to five years in prison…If Ukrainians find out that a migrant works for PMC Wagner or contributes to the illegal activities of the occupying authorities (for example, if the migrant was hired by the state), he will be sentenced in Ukraine for up to 20 years for complicity in the activities of a terrorist organization.

According to the Convention on the Laws and Customs of War on Land, migrants who dig trenches are not equated with combatants (combatants). But, digging trenches for money and being citizens of another country, they violate the laws and customs of war and become criminals. Therefore, they cannot surrender as prisoners of war, but can only turn themselves in to the legal authorities of Ukraine – and after that receive a life sentence.

It is difficult to say whether the construction of facilities for a clearly military purpose abroad will be interpreted in the homeland of migrants as participation in the conflict. However, the Embassy of Kyrgyzstan in Russia warned that, according to the Criminal Code of the Kyrgyz Republic, the participation of citizens of the Kyrgyz Republic in hostilities on the territory of foreign states is punishable by imprisonment for up to 10 years with confiscation of property.

In addition, for participation in armed conflicts or hostilities on the territory of a foreign state, a citizen of Kyrgyzstan can be deprived of citizenship.

Now the danger of punishment at home may seem insignificant to diggers, because Kyrgyzstan is critically dependent on Russia. In 2022, the transfers of individuals from there to the republic set a historical record, exceeding $2.7 billion…The authorities of Kyrgyzstan clearly do not want to quarrel with Moscow and are selective about the participation of their citizens in hostilities. Those who fight for Ukraine or simply support it, the authorities tend to punish, but those who fight for Russia do not. Thus, nothing is heard about investigations into the deaths of Kyrgyz citizens who fought with Ukraine on the side of the Russian Federation…However, the foreign policy environment can change quickly. If at some point it becomes profitable for the authorities of Kyrgyzstan to demonstrate neutrality or a critical attitude towards Russian aggression, the citizens of the country, who today are digging trenches in the occupied Ukrainian lands, may end up in prison. Or lose citizenship.


[i] A few resources have become available for Central Asians who are illegally drafted or not allowed to leave Russia, including contact information for organizations in Russia that help migrant workers. These have been distributed through media in the region amid reports that Central Asians have been drafted or denied permission to leave Russia. See: “Что делать, если вас пытаются мобилизовать или не выпускают из России? (What to do if you are possibly mobilized or not allowed to leave Russia),” Asia-Plus, 9 March 2023.

Image Information:

Image: Migrant workers in Moscow, Russia.
Attribution: CCA 2.0

Russia Effectively Leaves Arctic Council

“On 21 February, the Kremlin announced that Russia revised its Arctic policy by removing mentions of the Arctic Council, stressing the need to prioritize Russian Arctic interests, and striving for greater self-reliance for its Arctic industrial projects.”

The Arctic Council, founded in 1996, lists its members as Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russia, Sweden, and the United States. The position of Arctic Council president rotates between member states, and though the Council currently has a Russian president, other members of the Council have refused to meet in his presence in response to the war in Ukraine. Underscoring the schism, the Council also recently met without its current president presiding and accepted a Canadian counterclaim to Arctic territory that is also claimed by Russia.[i] As the excerpted article from independent Norwegian news source High North News indicates, Russia has effectively pulled out of the Arctic Council as a result of the Council’s actions and will now pursue its interests in the Arctic through bilateral relations and self-reliance. Russia’s decision increases the chance of further political conflict in the Arctic that could lead to a physical confrontation between Russia and Arctic Council member states.


Malte Humpert, “Russia Amends Arctic Policy Prioritizing ‘National Interest’ and Removing Cooperation Within Arctic Council,” High North News (independent newspaper published by the High North Center at Nord University, Bodo, Norway). 23 February 2023.

On 21 February, the Kremlin announced that Russia revised its Arctic policy by removing mentions of the Arctic Council, stressing the need to prioritize Russian Arctic interests, and striving for greater self-reliance for its Arctic industrial projects. The hopes for cooperation with Russia in the Arctic continue to cool. Days after a U.S. diplomat stated that cooperation with Russia in the Arctic was now virtually impossible, the Kremlin published amendments to its Arctic policy. President Putin signed the decree on 21 February. The updated document places greater emphasis on Russian national interests in the region and removes specific mentions for cooperation within the Arctic Council.

While the original policy, published in March 2020, called for the “strengthening of good neighborly relations with the Arctic states” in the fields of economic, scientific, cultural and cross-border cooperation the amended version removes the above section and instead calls for the “development of relations with foreign states on a bilateral basis, “taking into account the national interests of the Russian Federation in the Arctic.”

The amended text also removes mentions of “the framework of multilateral regional cooperation formats, including the Arctic Council, the coastal Arctic “five” and the Council of the Barents Euro-Arctic Region.” 

In the original policy the section on international cooperation, placed significant emphasis on work within “multilateral regional cooperation formats” for the purpose of building up economic, scientific and technological, as well as cultural cooperation. It did not make any mention of prioritizing Russian national interests. In contrast, the wording of the revised document now places the country’s national interests in the Arctic ahead of work towards economic, scientific and technological, and cultural cooperation. Just last week, U.S. military leaders emphasized that the Arctic was now Russia’s number one priorityThe updated version also places a greater emphasis on Russian self-reliance in the region. It calls for ensuring “import independence of the shipbuilding complex,” clearly a response to western sanctions which have affected Russia’s ability to order and purchase ice-capable gas and oil tankers at foreign shipyards.The amended version of the policy calls for the” development and modernization of shipbuilding and ship repair facilities for the construction and maintenance of ships navigating in the waters of the Northern Sea Route. “In terms of energy supply for population centers and industrial facilities along the NSR the policy now calls for the use of domestically built “low-power nuclear power plants.” The first such facility, the floating nuclear power plant Akademik Lomonosov was towed through the Baltics and up the Norwegian coastline in 2018 to the Arctic town of Pevek to supply electrical power and residential heat.


[i] For more additional information about the Canadian claim on the Lomonosov Ridge see: Les Grau, “Canada Makes Additional Claims to Arctic Territory Claimed by Russia,” OE Watch, 02-2023.

Russia Cutting Back on Nuclear Icebreaker Production

“An updated version of Russia’s Arctic Strategy states that Russia will only build one “Lider,” not three as originally planned. The amended document signed by President Putin on the 27th of February reads that only the lead ship of the new class will be built before 2035.”

As reported in the excerpted article from the Norway-based The Barents Observer, Russia will only build one of the three nuclear icebreakers it had previously planned but will compensate by increasing conventional icebreaker production. Although the cutback in production could be a response to the latest rounds of EU sanctions against Russia, the decision may have already been in process. In the past, Russia has cut back on expensive projects only to introduce improved projects later. The change in direction may indicate Russia believes it already has enough atomic-powered icebreakers in an era of thinning polar icecaps.


Atle Staalesen, “Moscow lowers ambitions in nuclear icebreaker program, will not build fleet of new super-powerful vessels after all,” The Barents Observer (independent Norwegian news site in Russian and English currently blocked in Russia), 1 March 2023.

Only two days after the EU imposed sanctions against Russia’s state nuclear icebreaker operator, the country announces that it will not build a fleet of Lider-class vessels. An updated version of Russia’s Arctic Strategy states that Russia will only build one “Lider,” not three as originally planned. The amended document signed by President Putin on the 27th of February reads that only the lead ship of the new class will be built before 2035.

The lead ship carries the name “Rossiya” and is currently under construction at the Zvezda yard in the Russian Far East. It is due to be ready for sailing in 2027. The Lider (project 20510) will be equipped with two RITM-400 type nuclear reactors and have a total capacity of 120 MW, twice the power of the currently most powerful icebreakers. It will be able to crush through ice thicker than four meters.

The vessel is very complicated to build, and it comes at an extraordinarily high price. The Russian government in January 2020 allocated 127 billion rubles (€1,85 billion) for the construction of the lead ship. The reduction of the number of Liders is compensated by the construction of more LK-60 icebreakers[GRLCUT(1] . While the original strategy document from 2020 includes the construction of “no less than five” icebreakers of the 22220 class, the updated documents reads “no less than seven” vessels of the kind.

Russia already has three ships of the class in operation: the Arktika, Sibir and Ural. By year 2035, also the Yakutia, Chukotka, Kamchatka and Primorie will be completed. The Arctic Strategy also outlines the construction of 30 rescue and support ships, as well as three hydrographic survey ships and two piloting ships by 2030.

The updated document comes only two days after the European Commission adopted its 10th package of sanctions against Russia, a part of which is aimed at nuclear icebreaker operator Atomflot. According to the Commission, the sanctions against Atomflot will reduce Russia’s ability to take use of the Northern Sea Route to exploit its vast Arctic oil and gas reserves.

“With oil and gas exports shifting from Europe to Asia as a result of Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine and subsequent Westerns sanctions, Russia’s icebreaker fleet is key to the country’s Arctic hydrocarbon strategy. In order to escort oil and gas tankers on the much longer and more challenging voyage from the Yamal and Gydan peninsulas to Asia, rather than the much shorter and less ice infested route to Europe, Russia relies on Atomflot’s fleet of nuclear icebreakers,” an explanation from the Commission reads.Vladimir Putin has since 2018 had the development of the Northern Sea Route as one of his key priorities and federal agencies have been commissioned to reach 80 million tons of goods per year on the route by 2024. The lion’s share of the projected goods traffic is oil, liquified natural gas and coal.

Iran Capitalizing on Post-Earthquake Conditions To Deepen Influence in Syria

Aleppo in the war (2016).

Aleppo in the war (2016).

… Local media sources also indicated that the excavation machinery of the Iranian IRGC-affiliated ‘Khatam al-Anbiya’ company began demolishing a number of residential buildings in the eastern neighborhoods of Aleppo, under the pretext that they were cracked as a result of the earthquake…”

On 6 February, a 7.8 magnitude earthquake struck near the Syria-Turkish border, damaging and destroying countless structures in surrounding areas and killing more than 50,000 people. The Syrian province of Aleppo was especially hard hit, with damages estimated as high as $3.2 billion, mostly in the eponymous provincial capital.[i]  Iran and its allied Iraqi factions from the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) have provided much publicized assistance to parts of Aleppo, in ways that are likely to deepen their influence among the local population.  The accompanying excerpt, from the Syrian opposition news website Enab Baladi, highlights a visit to Aleppo by Ismail Qaani, Qasim Soleimani’s successor as head of the Iran Revolutionary Guard Corps’ Quds Force.  Qaani was the first foreign official to visit Syria after the earthquake, and his visit to Aleppo preceded that of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad by two days. When al-Assad finally went to Aleppo, he met briefly with Abdel Aziz al-Muhammadawi (a.k.a. Abu Fadak), the head of PMF, who was there to oversee PMF post-earthquake assistance in Aleppo.  Like his predecessor, who was killed in the same strike that killed Soleimani, al-Muhammadawi is considered a close Quds Force ally.  According to the Enab Baladi report, al-Assad thanked al-Muhammadawi and his organization for their humanitarian assistance.  Iranian-backed entities are now seeking government permits to rebuild parts of the city, as they have across the war-ravaged suburbs of the Syrian capital Damascus in recent years.[ii]  The second accompanying excerpt, from the Qatari-aligned daily al-Araby al-Jadeed, explains how the IRGC-linked construction company Khatam al-Anbiya had demolished some buildings in eastern Aleppo and sought to lay the foundations for a future bastion of Iranian support in the area.

Other media reports have speculated that Iran also has used post-earthquake humanitarian aid as a cover to transfer weapons to Syria. The Israeli government was quick to warn of this possibility, and in early March, it bombed Aleppo airport, targeting purported Iranian drones being stored there.  As noted in the accompanying article, from the Saudi-aligned daily Independent Arabia, there are conflicting reports about what exactly was targeted, with some sources claiming it was drones transferred from a nearby, recently rehabilitated airbase that is now under Russian control (al-Jarrah), and others claiming it involved weapons brought in by land and air under the cover of humanitarian assistance.  Regardless, the strikes led to a temporary halt in operations at Aleppo’s airport, forcing a diversion of humanitarian aid flights and prompting UN and government officials to warn of dire humanitarian consequences.[iii]


“الحشد الشعبي” يضغط على النظام في حلب بشقق سكنية لمتضرري الزلزال

(PMF pressures the regime in Aleppo via apartment buildings for earthquake victims,)” Enab Baladi (Syrian opposition news website), 28 February 2023.

On February 8, Ismail Qaani, commander of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards’ Quds Force, visited Aleppo where he inspected earthquake victims’ conditions and supervised the work of Iranian rescuers at rubble-clearing sites, according to the Iranian Mehr News Agency. He was the first foreign official to arrive in Syria after the earthquake, and appeared in Aleppo two days before the head of the regime arrived in the city…

The researcher on Iranian affairs, Mustafa al-Nuaimi, explained that Iranian activity in Syria falls within two tracks, political and military…On the military level, the cargo planes that land in Aleppo and Damascus may be loaded with precision-strike missile technology and drones, although they were not bombed by Israel… this is a major military track that can be exploited under the guise of aid.

“إيران تعزز وجودها في حلب بذريعة مساعدة منكوبي الزلزال

(Iran strengthens its presence in Aleppo on the pretext of helping earthquake victims),” al-Araby al-Jadeed (Qatari-aligned daily), 4 March 2023.

Local media sources also indicated that the excavation machinery of the Iranian IRGC-affiliated “Khatam al-Anbiya” company began demolishing a number of residential buildings in the eastern neighborhoods of Aleppo, under the pretext that they were cracked as a result of the earthquake… the Reconstruction Office of the Khatam al-Anbiya Company offered to buy homes as-is from owners of earthquake-damaged or even undamaged homes in these eastern neighborhoods of Aleppo.

“ما السياق الإقليمي لضربات إسرائيل ضد إيران في سوريا؟

(What is the regional context for Israel’s strikes against Iran in Syria?)” Independent Arabia (Saudi-aligned daily), 10 March 2023.
Opposition media outlets reported that the bombing of Aleppo airport was due to the existence of a weapons and missile depot. The Israeli “Alma” Research Center (close to intelligence) reported that some of them had arrived by land through the Al-Qaim crossing with Iraq, in trucks transporting weapons with humanitarian aid for those affected by the earthquake that hit northern Syria and Turkey on 6 February, while some of these weapons also arrived in a plane to the airport. In another version, the opposition media outlet Orient Net indicated that the weapons were transferred from al-Jarrah Military Airport in Aleppo. The Russian army is now deployed there and allegedly asked the Iranians to transfer their equipment away from the base.


[i] “Global Rapid Post-Disaster Damage Estimation (GRADE) Report,” World Bank, 20 February 2023.

[ii] For more see: Lucas Winter, “Iran Cements its Presence in Syria,” OE Watch, 05-2019.  

[iii] According to the UN, the “closure could have severe humanitarian implications for people in Aleppo, one of the worst earthquake impacted governorates in Syria…We call on all parties to abide by their obligations under international humanitarian law, including by taking all feasible precautions to spare civilians and civilian objects in the conduct of hostilities.” See: “United Nations Resident Coordinator and Humanitarian Coordinator ad interim for Syria, El-Mostafa Benlamlih statement on the Aleppo International Airport strikes,” 8 March 2023.

Image Information:

Image:  Aleppo in the war (2016)
Source: Louai Barakat,  
Attribution: CC 4.0