West preparing for arms race with Russia and its backers

Washington — While much of the focus at the NATO summit in Washington has been on providing additional support for Ukraine, some Western officials are equally intent on confronting another challenge unleashed by Russia’s invasion: a nascent arms race with global implications.

The officials argue it is no longer enough to try to ensure Ukraine has the weapons and systems it needs to keep pace with Russia’s unrelenting attacks. They say NATO must simultaneously prepare to outspend, outpace and outproduce the fledgling alliance that has kept the Russian military on the move.

“There is no time to lose,” a NATO official told VOA, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss the growing defense cooperation among Russia, China, North Korea and Iran.

“This must be a key priority for all our allies, because it is not just about spending more,” the official said. “It is also on getting those capabilities.”

Officials have repeatedly accused China of playing a critical role in sustaining Russia’s military by sending Moscow raw materials and so-called dual-use components needed to produce advanced weapons and weapons systems.

In April and May, the United States and Britain levied new sanctions against Iranian companies and officials involved in the production of drones for the Russian military.

And declassified U.S. intelligence has noted Russia’s use of North Korean ballistic missiles, while South Korean officials said earlier this year that Pyongyang has so far sent Russia at least 6,700 containers which could contain more than 3 million artillery shells. 

The NATO official who spoke to VOA said the support from China, Iran and North Korea has significantly altered Russia’s posture on the battlefield, rendering intelligence assessments that Russia’s military “will require years of rebuilding” obsolete.  

“When you look at the assessments of the pace of reconstitution of the Russian armed forces and the Russian defense industrial and technological base, those assessments were made without taking into account how much China would be stepping in,” the official said.

And there are concerns this is just the beginning. The prospect for increased cooperation between Russia, China, North Korea and Iran, “essentially underlines the urgency of the task at hand,” the official said.

Some U.S. officials have taken to calling the growing alliance a new “axis of evil.”

“We ought to act accordingly,” former commander of U.S. forces in the Indo-Pacific Admiral John Aquilino told lawmakers in March. 

Some analysts are also alarmed, seeing signs that the defense relationship between Russia and the other countries is moving beyond a series of bilateral efforts to support Moscow’s war in Ukraine.

“What we are seeing now is … an intensification, a deepening of these strategic partnerships,” said Richard Goldberg, a senior adviser at the Washington-based Foundation for Defense of Democracies.

“Whether or not they’re 100% aligned all the time, every day, what’s important is that on the strategic capabilities that they’re building in partnership, they are aligned,” Goldberg, a U.S. National Security Council official under former President Donald Trump, told VOA. “Our response has to view them as an axis, not individual parts.”

But how quickly that axis evolves into a true rival to NATO is less certain.

“There are still significant tension points between the four countries that prevent the formation of a more cohesive alliance,” said Michelle Grisé, a senior policy researcher at the RAND Corporation.

“Within the Russia-Iran relationship, for example, friction points include competition for energy markets and for influence in the Caucasus, as well as — at least historically —divergent approaches to Israel,” Grisé told VOA.

“The Russia-China-North Korea-Iran axis poses a serious threat to U.S. and NATO interests, but I don’t think this axis is an unsurmountable rival,” she said. “To form a more cohesive alliance, they’ll have to translate their shared opposition to the Western-led international order into a coherent, shared vision for the future, which I expect they’ll struggle to do.”

NATO allies, however, are not ready to take such struggles by the evolving Russian-Chinese-North Korean-Iranian axis for granted.

In a speech July 9 at the NATO Summit Defense Industry Forum in Washington, U.S. Deputy Defense Secretary Kathleen Hicks noted the “rapid defense industrial expansion of our strategic competitors,” while urging NATO allies to expand cooperation on weapons procurement and development.

As an example, Hicks cited an effort by the U.S., Germany, Spain and others to produce interceptors for Patriot air defense batteries in Europe while praising a U.S.-Turkish effort to produce 155-millimeter artillery shells in the southern U.S. state of Texas.

“None of us should think it’s enough,” she said. “Expanding transatlantic defense industrial capacity is not a nice-to-do. It is a need-to-do, a must-do for the NATO alliance.”

Even if the NATO efforts to boost weapons production are not enough, some officials see them as a reason to believe the West can retain an upper hand.

“I think that the steps and the progress we’re making is really delivering results,” the NATO official told VOA, adding, they “wouldn’t be overly pessimistic.”

“On issues like ammunitions, you’re starting to see the ramping up actually materializing,” the official said. “And I think if we look at the year to come, we’re going to have much better, much better numbers.” 

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Oil tanker held by Iran for over a year heads toward international waters

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates — An oil tanker held by Iran for over a year after being seized amid tensions between Tehran and the United States was sailing Thursday toward international waters, tracking data showed.

The Marshall Islands-flagged tanker Advantage Sweet traveled toward the Strait of Hormuz, where it was seized in April 2023 by Iran’s navy while carrying $50 million worth of oil from Kuwait for Chevron Corporation. That’s according to tracking data analyzed by The Associated Press, which also listed the vessel’s destination at Khor Fakkan in the United Arab Emirates, which has been the first port of call for other vessels leaving Iranian detention.

Iran did not acknowledge the ship’s departure. It came after an Iranian court on Thursday ordered the U.S. government to pay over $6.7 billion in compensation over a Swedish company stopping its supply of special dressings and bandages for those afflicted by a rare skin disorder after Washington imposed sanctions on the Islamic Republic.

Iran’s government initially said it seized the Advantage Sweet because it hit another vessel, a claim not supported by any evidence. Then Iranian officials linked the Advantage Sweet’s seizure to the court case that was decided Thursday.

A report by the state-run IRNA news agency described the $6.7 billion order as being filed on behalf of 300 plaintiffs, including family members of victims and those physically and emotionally damaged. IRNA said about 20 patients died after the Swedish company’s decision.

Epidermolysis bullosa is a rare genetic condition that causes blisters all over the body and eyes. It can be incredibly painful and kill those afflicted. The young who suffer from the disease are known as “butterfly children” as their skin can appear as fragile as a butterfly’s wing.

The order comes as U.S. judges have issued rulings that call for billions of dollars to be paid by Iran over attacks linked to Tehran, as well as those detained by Iran and used as pawns in negotiations between the countries — something Iran has responded to with competing lawsuits accusing the U.S. of involvement in a 2017 Islamic State group attack. The United Nations’ highest court also last year rejected Tehran’s legal bid to free up some $2 billion in Iranian Central Bank assets frozen by U.S. authorities.

In 2018, then-President Donald Trump unilaterally withdrew the U.S. from Iran’s 2015 nuclear deal with world powers, apparently sparking the Swedish company to withdraw from the Iranian market. Iran now says it locally produces the bandages.

Chevron, based in San Ramon, California, has maintained that the Advantage Sweet was “seized under false pretenses.” It has since written off the cargo as a loss.

The U.S. Navy has blamed Iran for a series of limpet mine attacks on vessels that damaged tankers in 2019, as well as for a fatal drone attack on an Israeli-linked oil tanker that killed two European crew members in 2021.

Tehran denies carrying out the attacks, but a wider shadow war between Iran and the West has played out in the region’s volatile waters. Iranian tanker seizures have been a part of it since 2019. The last major seizure came when Iran took two Greek tankers in May 2022 and held them until November of that year.

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Fire in towering spire of medieval cathedral in French city of Rouen is under control

Paris — A fire broke out Thursday in the spire of the medieval cathedral in Rouen, a major landmark in northern France that was under renovation, but authorities said it was quickly brought under control.

Witnesses told French television they saw smoke emanating from the spire just after midday, and recalled a devastating fire in 2019 at Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris that toppled its spire and collapsed its roof.

Rouen’s 12th century cathedral, which is considered to be a Gothic masterpiece, is widely beloved, not least because of a series of paintings by impressionist Claude Monet capturing its asymmetrical western facade. It is also the tallest church in France, and among the tallest cathedrals in the entire world — and renowned for its three towers, each constructed in a different style.

Mayor Nicolas Mayer-Rossignol first posted on the social media platform X around midday that “the beginning of a fire is underway on the spire of the cathedral of Rouen.”

Less than 90 minutes later, Stephane Gouezec, of the Seine-Maritime firefighters, said the source of the blaze had been located — some 120 meters (some 400 feet) high — and the fire contained. Crews were working to ensure there were no remaining “hot spots,” he added.

But he told reporters the risk of the flames spreading was low because the fire was in an area where there was mostly metal.

Gouezec said construction workers were the first to notice the fire and alerted authorities.

The cathedral had been evacuated and a security perimeter put in place, according to regional officials.

Witnesses in Rouen were jittery since the memory of Paris’ Notre Dame blaze is still etched in the national consciousness. It caught fire five years ago, also while under renovation, and is scheduled to reopen in December after an unprecedented reconstruction effort. The cause of that fire was deemed an accident.

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Russia’s missile attack leaves scores of Kyiv residents homeless

In Ukraine, Kyiv’s largest children’s hospital and some residential buildings were damaged by a Russian missile attack on July 8. The next day, residents were allowed to briefly go back to collect some personal belongings. Anna Kosstutschenko spoke to some of them as they returned from their homes. VOA footage and video editing by Pavel Suhodolskiy.

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Poland must prepare army for full-scale conflict, army chief says 

WARSAW — Poland needs to prepare its soldiers for all-out conflict, its armed forces chief of staff said on Wednesday, as the country boosts the number of troops on its border with Russia and Belarus. 

Poland’s relations with Russia and its ally Belarus have deteriorated sharply since Moscow sent tens of thousands of troops into neighboring Ukraine on Feb. 24, 2022, starting a war that is still being fought. 

“Today, we need to prepare our forces for full-scale conflict, not an asymmetric-type conflict,” army chief of staff General Wieslaw Kukula told a press conference. 

“This forces us to find a good balance between the border mission and maintaining the intensity of training in the army,” he said. 

Speaking at the same event, deputy defense minister Pawel Bejda said that as of August, the number of troops guarding Poland’s eastern border would be increased to 8,000 from the current 6,000, with an additional rearguard of 9,000 able to step up within 48 hours notice. 

In May, Poland announced details of “East Shield”, a 10 billion zloty ($2.5 billion) program to beef up defenses along its border with Belarus and Russia, which it plans to complete the plans by 2028. 

The border with Belarus has been a flashpoint since migrants started flocking there in 2021 after Belarus opened travel agencies in the Middle East offering a new unofficial route into Europe — a move the European Union said was designed to create a crisis. 

Warsaw has ramped up defense spending to more that 4% of its economic output this year in response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. 

Kukula also said the current high interest from candidates to join the army posed a dilemma over whether to take in more recruits than budgeted for at the expense of military equipment procurement, especially as he said interest was expected to start declining sharply from 2027. 

The size of the armed forces stood at about 190,000 personnel at the end of last year, including ground, air, naval, special forces and territorial defense forces. Poland plans to increase this to 300,000 troops within a few years. 

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French left, centrists, tussle to form government

PARIS — Leaders from the left-wing bloc that topped France’s legislative election on Sunday and the runner-up centrists continued on Wednesday a frenzied race to try to put together rival bids to form a viable government.

The unexpected outcome of the snap election, in which the left benefited from a surprise surge but no group won an absolute majority, has plunged France into uncertainty, with no obvious path to a stable government.

The New Popular Front (NFP) alliance of the hard left France Unbowed, Communists, Socialists and Greens and President Emmanuel Macron’s centrists both tried to woo lawmakers from each other’s camp and beyond.

“I think there is an alternative to the New Popular Front,” Aurore Berge, a senior lawmaker from Macron’s Renaissance group told France 2 TV. “I think the French don’t want the NFP’s platform to be implemented. I think they don’t want tax increases.”

“We are the only ones who can extend (our base),” she said, adding that the conservative The Republicans could be an option for such a deal.

Phones are ringing constantly, with some calls made by centrists trying to poach enough lawmakers from the mainstream left to create the basis for a government, political sources have told Reuters.

Meanwhile, leftist leaders also took to the airwaves to stress that, having topped the election, they should run the government – with a prime minister and cabinet the different parties that constitute the NFP are yet to agree on.

Strained finances

Amid warnings from rating agencies, what France does with its strained public finances will be an early test of whether it can still be governed. Financial markets, the European Commission and its euro zone partners are all watching closely.

It would be customary for Macron to call on the biggest parliamentary group to form a government, but nothing in the constitution obliges him to do so.

Options include a broad coalition and a minority government, which would pass laws in parliament on a case-by-case basis, with ad hoc agreements.

Macron “must allow the left to govern,” leftist leader Francois Ruffin told Le Monde.

Macron, whose term ends in 2027, looks unlikely to be able to drive policy again, having been beaten by the far-right National Rally in last month’s European election and by the left in the snap legislative election he called against the will of some of his own supporters.

Carole Delga, from the Socialist Party, stressed that the left on its own cannot govern, and must extend its hand to others – but on the basis of the NFP’s tax-and-spend program.

But others took a harder line.

“The NFP has the greatest number of deputies in the National Assembly, it is therefore up to the NFP to constitute a government … this is what we are working towards,” Manuel Bompard, from France Unbowed, told LCI TV.

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Russian election meddlers hurting Biden, helping Trump, US intelligence warns

WASHINGTON — Russia is turning to a familiar playbook in its attempt to sway the outcome of the upcoming U.S. presidential election, looking for ways to boost the candidacy of former President Donald Trump by disparaging the campaign of incumbent President Joe Biden, according to American intelligence officials. 

A new assessment of threats to the November election, shared Tuesday, does not mention either candidate by name. But an intelligence official told reporters that the Kremlin view of the U.S. political landscape has not changed from previous election cycles.

“We have not observed a shift in Russia’s preferences for the presidential race from past elections,” the official told reporters, agreeing to discuss the intelligence only on the condition of anonymity.

The official said that preference has been further cemented by “the role the U.S. is playing with regard to Ukraine and broader policy toward Russia.”

The caution from U.S. intelligence officials comes nearly four years after it issued a similar warning about the 2020 presidential elections, which pitted then-President Trump against Biden.

Moscow was using “a range of measures to primarily denigrate former Vice President Biden and what it sees as an anti-Russia ‘establishment,’” William Evanina, the then-head of the U.S. National Counterintelligence and Security Center, said at the time.

“Some Kremlin-linked actors are also seeking to boost President Trump’s candidacy on social media and Russian television,” he added. 

A declassified post-election assessment, released in March 2021, reaffirmed the initial findings. Russian President Vladimir Putin authorized “influence operations aimed at denigrating President Biden’s candidacy and the Democratic Party” while offering support for Trump, the report said. 

U.S. intelligence officials said they have been in contact with both presidential campaigns and the candidates but declined to share what sort of information may have been shared.

Trump pushback

The Trump campaign Tuesday rejected the U.S. intelligence assessment as backward.

“Vladimir Putin endorsed Joe Biden for President because he knows Biden is weak and can easily be bullied, as evidenced by Putin’s years-long invasion of Ukraine,” national press secretary Karoline Leavitt told VOA in an email.

“When President Trump was in the Oval Office, Russia and all of America’s adversaries were deterred, because they feared how the United States would respond,” she said.

“The only people in America who don’t see this clear contrast between Biden’s ineffective weakness versus Trump’s effective peace through strength approach are the left-wing stenographers in the mainstream media who write false narratives about Donald Trump for a living,” she added.

The Biden campaign has so far not responded to questions from VOA about the new U.S. assessment.

Russian sophistication

Russian officials also have not yet responded to requests for comment on the latest allegations, which accuse the Kremlin of using a “whole of government” approach to see Trump and other American candidates perceived as favorable to Moscow win in November.

“Moscow is using a variety of approaches to bolster its messaging and lend an air of authenticity to its efforts,” the U.S. intelligence official said. “This includes outsourcing its efforts to commercial firms to hide its hand and laundering narratives through influential U.S. voices.”

Russia’s efforts also appear focused on targeting U.S. voters in so-called swing states, states most likely to impact the outcome of the presidential election, officials said.

Some of those efforts have already come to light.

Russia and AI

Earlier Tuesday, the U.S. Department of Justice announced the seizure of two internet domains and of another 968 accounts on the X social media platform, part of what officials described an artificial intelligence-driven venture by Russian intelligence and Russia’s state-run RT news network.

A Justice Department statement said Russian intelligence and RT used specific AI software to create authentic-looking social media accounts to mimic U.S. individuals, “which the operators then used to promote messages in support of Russian government objectives.”

A joint advisory, issued simultaneously by the U.S., Canada and the Netherlands, warned Russia was in the process of expanding the AI-fueled influence operation to other social media platforms.

The U.S. intelligence official who spoke to reporters Tuesday described such use of AI as a “malign influence accelerant,” and warned the technology had already been deployed, likely by China, in the run-up to Taiwan’s elections this past January.

China waiting

For now, though, U.S. intelligence officials see few indications Beijing is seeking to interfere in U.S. elections, as it did in 2020 and 2022. 

China “sees little gain in choosing between two parties that are perceived as both seeking to contain Beijing,” said the U.S. intelligence official, noting things could change.

“The PRC is seeking to expand its ability to collect and monitor data on U.S. social media platforms, probably to better understand and eventually manipulate public opinion,” the official said. “In addition, we are watching for whether China might seek to influence select down-ballot races as it did in the 2022 midterm elections.”

The Chinese Embassy in Washington, which has denied previous U.S. allegations, responded by calling the U.S. “the biggest disseminator of disinformation.”

“China has no intention and will not interfere in the US election, and we hope that the US side will not make an issue of China in the election,” spokesperson Liu Pengyu told VOA in an email.

‘Chaos agent’

The new U.S. election threat assessment warns that in addition to concerns about Russia and China, there is growing evidence Iran is seeking to play the role of a “chaos agent” in the upcoming U.S. vote.

“Iran seeks to stoke social divisions and undermine confidence in U.S. democratic institutions around the elections,” according to an unclassified version of the assessment. 

It also warned that Tehran “has demonstrated a long-standing interest in exploiting U.S. political and societal tensions through various means, including social media.”

As an example, officials Tuesday pointed to newly declassified intelligence showing Iran trying to exploit pro-Gaza protests across the U.S.

“We have observed actors tied to Iran’s government posing as activists online, seeking to encourage protests, and even providing financial support to protesters,” said National Intelligence Director Avril Haines.

Haines cautioned, though, that Americans who interacted with the Iranian actors “may not be aware that they are interacting with or receiving support from a foreign government.”

Iranian officials have not yet responded to VOA’s request for comment.

 

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Biden: Ukraine to get 5 more air defense systems

Pentagon — Ukraine is receiving five additional air defense systems to protect its sovereign territory, including three additional Patriot batteries from the United States, Germany and Romania.

U.S. President Joe Biden announced the five systems as NATO members commemorated the 75th anniversary of the alliance during a summit in Washington.

Allies marked the anniversary at Mellon Auditorium, the site of the original signing of the North Atlantic treaty that established the defensive bloc in 1949.

Topping the summit agenda is support for Ukraine’s battle against Russia’s illegal invasion.

The Netherlands and other partners are donating Patriot components to build a fourth Patriot battery, while Italy is donating an additional SAMP-T system, according to a joint statement Tuesday by the leaders of the United States, Germany, the Netherlands, Romania and Ukraine.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy told NATO members in April that Ukraine needed a minimum of seven Patriot or other high-end air defense systems to counter Russian air strikes.

NATO allies say they are coordinating closely with Kyiv to make these systems available as soon as possible. They also said they are working to make another announcement about additional strategic air defense systems for Ukraine later this year.

“Not even our support for Ukraine has been a given,” NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said Tuesday. “The reality is there are no cost-free options with an aggressive Russia as a neighbor. There are no risk-free options in a war, and remember, the biggest cost and the greatest risk will be if Russia wins in Ukraine.”

Since the U.S. Congress approved new aid for Ukraine following months of delays, the United States has provided Ukraine with hundreds of millions of dollars in equipment pulled from U.S. stockpiles, including the additional Patriot battery announced Tuesday and multiple rounds of long-range missiles known as ATACMS, two U.S. officials told VOA.

The ATACMS have a range of up to 300 kilometers (about 185 miles) and nearly double the striking distance of Ukraine’s missiles.

In addition, the U.S. has provided billions of dollars of funding for Kyiv’s long-term defense needs, including last week’s $2.2 billion Ukraine Security Assistance Initiative package that is being used to purchase interceptors for NASAMS (medium-range ground-based air defense system) and Patriot air defense systems for Ukraine. 

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