May 22, 2024

International Relations

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Tragedy Strikes a Boat Full of Spies, and Conspiracy Theories Mount

SESTO CALENDE, Italy — The black clouds appeared quickly, sneaking up on sun-seeking revelers on the lake in northern Italy, interrupting early-evening aperitivi and lakefront strolls. A weather warning issued earlier in the day had not foreseen the violence of the storm that burst over the lake, with winds so extreme they sank a boat, killing four of its 23 passengers.

As news stories go, the incident on Lake Maggiore on Sunday was a freak tragedy that would usually have attracted fleeting attention.

But in subsequent days, the story took off in the Italian media when it emerged that 21 people on the boat were spies or former spies — including 13 from the Mossad, Israel’s foreign intelligence service, and eight Italian ones. Official explanations that they had been celebrating a birthday did little to quell a speculative frenzy about their activities.

Two of those who died belonged to Italy’s intelligence service, according to a note issued by Italian intelligence, while Israel said that another victim had been a retired Mossad operative. The fourth victim, a Russian woman, had been married to the boat’s skipper.

What, Italians wondered, were all those spies really doing on a Sunday afternoon cruising on a rental boat named the “Good…uria” (a play on an Italian term for pleasure)? The gathering was quickly labeled a “spy party” by several media outlets.

Some outlets speculated whether the Alpine boat trip had been an opportunity to swap information. Was it a coincidence that the skipper was fluent in Bulgarian, as some noted, and married to a Russian, Anna Bozhkova? Had the spies been scoping the lake for Russian magnates investing nearby, as the Milan daily newspaper Corriere della Sera posited Thursday?

The prosecutor looking into the incident, Massimo De Filippo, and his boss, chief prosecutor Carlo Nocerino, said such questions were outside the scope of their investigation, which is to determine what made the boat capsize and sink.

Carlo Carminati, 60, the skipper, is being investigated on suspicion of negligent homicide, causing a shipwreck and being responsible for injuring the surviving passengers. “We’re not interested in what the passengers were doing,” said Nocerino in an interview in his office in Busto Arsizio in Lombardy, the region containing the part of the lake where the boat sank.

Nocerino said that he had asked the captain of the team trying to bring the boat to the surface to advise him immediately when it was back above water so that he and De Filippo would be the first aboard.

As of Wednesday afternoon, the boat had been dragged close to shore but remained underwater after several unsuccessful attempts to surface it using balloons.

“I don’t want there to be any doubt that we didn’t pursue the investigation to the fullest extent,” Nocerino said. The boat and its contents would be confiscated and placed under judicial authority, he said.

The prosecutor acknowledged speculation in the media that the government could shut down the investigation should documents or briefcases be found. “If we find briefcases, we will confiscate them,” Nocerino said dryly.

Adding to the intrigue, the surviving passengers appeared to have been spirited away from the lake within hours of the accident. The Mossad sent an aircraft to return the Israeli survivors home and tried to prevent publication of details about the incident in Israel, according to two Israeli defense officials. (The Israeli media reported that the Israeli casualty was a Mossad veteran only on Wednesday.)

A statement issued by Italian intelligence identifying two of the victims — Claudio Alonzi, 62, and Tiziana Barnobi, 53 — as members of Italian intelligence said they had been in the area “to attend a convivial gathering” for the birthday of one of the group. A spokesperson for the Italian agency said it had nothing to add.

Israeli information services have not officially released the real name of the Mossad veteran. His funeral was held in Ashqelon, Israel, on Wednesday.

The Mossad issued a statement Wednesday noting that “due to his service in the organization, it will not be possible to elaborate about him. The Mossad has lost a dear friend, a dedicated and professional worker who had dedicated his life to the security of the State of Israel for decades, even after his retirement.”

The former Mossad operative who died had belonged to a unit responsible for covert liaison with foreign intelligence services, according to a former senior defense official, who asked not to be named when discussing sensitive relations between espionage agencies.

Although he had retired from service at the Mossad, he continued to serve as a reservist for the organization and arrived in Italy together with his colleagues as part of a cooperative relationship between the Israeli and Italian spy organizations, the former official added.

The Mossad and Italian intelligence cooperate on issues of common interest, such as the war on terrorism, or gathering information on the Iranian nuclear project, he added.

None of the survivors had identification documents with them when they gave statements about the accident to Italian military police officers Sunday night. They said they had lost them when the boat capsized, prosecutors said.

Prosecutors also confirmed that the Italians told the investigators they were employees of the presidency of the Council of Ministers, a catchall government department, while the Israelis said they were part of a government delegation.

Whatever the uncertainties surrounding the case, one thing that was certain was the unexpected violence of the storm on Lake Maggiore on Sunday night.

The civil protection agency for the Lombardy region had issued a Code Yellow — a caution — for the lake about possible thunderstorms that night. While all bulletins had warned of worsening conditions for the area, “such intense phenomena were considered unlikely that evening,” said Paolo Valisa, a meteorologist with a local weather agency. “You can predict a thunderstorm, but until now we haven’t been able to predict its intensity, at least in such a localized area.”

Nearby wind speed indicators on the lake indicated gusts between 42 and 60 kph, but it could have been even higher where the boat got trapped by a downburst, powerful winds that descend with cold air from a thunderstorm and spread out, he said.

Samuel Panetti and several friends had also been on the lake in their boat Sunday evening and were the first to rescue survivors of the Good…uria.

“The weather had been fine all day,” he said, but when the storm hit, the rain was so thick, it was like navigating through a cloud. “There was so much rain and hail, and the wind tossed the boat from left to right,” he recalled.

He saw what he first thought was a group of seagulls in the middle of the lake, but upon getting closer, he saw they were people from the sinking boat, “shouting for help, like children.”

He and his friends helped some get on board their boat and threw “anything that floated” into the water for others to latch on to. A few of the survivors managed to swim to shore.

The two female victims were found trapped inside the charter boat, which sank to a depth of about 50 feet. A third victim was found on the bottom of the lake, while another had been recovered floating.

“It was terrifying seeing all those people in the water; it seemed like a scene from a film. I still have a hard time believing it was true,” he said. “If we hadn’t come by, I think they would have all died,” he said.

Paolo Mazzucchelli, the director for public transportation on Lake Maggiore, said that at the moment the accident took place, “wind speed had grown very quickly in a very short period of time” and that the storm was “localized and very intense.”

“They found themselves in the wrong place at the wrong time,” he said.

Two guards stand on a dock in front of a large gray ship.
The missile cruiser Peter the Great, part of the Russian Navy’s northern fleet, at its Arctic base in Severomorsk in 2021. Russia, China and the West are all seeking to expand their military presence in the Arctic. Credit…Emile Ducke for The New York Times

As polar ice melts, Russia, already a major Arctic power, wants to make the region its own. China has ambitions for a “Polar Silk Road.” And NATO is embracing Finland — and Sweden too, Washington hopes — giving the alliance new reach in the Far North.

Climate change is accelerating and amplifying competition in the Arctic as never before, opening the region to greater commercial and strategic jostling just at a moment when Russia, China and the West are all seeking to expand their military presence there.

The rising importance of the region is underscored by the travels of Antony J. Blinken, the U.S. secretary of state, who will attend an informal meeting of NATO foreign ministers in Norway on Thursday.

Mr. Blinken is making a point of visiting Sweden and Finland as well, meeting the leaders of all three countries as they press Turkey to ratify Sweden’s quick entry into NATO. He is scheduled to deliver a major speech on Russia, Ukraine and NATO on Friday in Helsinki, the capital of NATO’s newest member.

For a long time, countries were reluctant to discuss the Arctic as a possible military zone. But that is quickly changing.

Russian aggression plus climate change make “a perfect storm,” said Matti Pesu, an analyst at the Finnish Institute of International Affairs. There is a new Cold War atmosphere, mixed with melting ice, which affects military planning and opens up new economic possibilities and access to natural resources.

Two men shake hands at the bottom of the stairs to an airplane.
Tobias Billstrom, the foreign minister of Sweden, welcoming Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Tuesday. Credit…TT News Agency/via Reuters

“So all these are connected and are magnifying each other,” Mr. Pesu said. “It makes the region intriguing.”

While NATO has been cheered by Russia’s difficulties in Ukraine, the alliance in fact has significant vulnerabilities in the north.

Russia remains a vast Arctic power, with naval bases and nuclear missiles stationed in the Far North but also along Russia’s western edge: in the Kola Peninsula, near Norway, where Russia keeps most of its nuclear-armed submarines, and in Kaliningrad, bordered by Poland and Lithuania.

change, shipping routes are becoming less icebound and easier to navigate, making the Arctic more accessible and attractive for competitive commercial exploitation, as well as military adventurism.

Russia has said it wants to make the Arctic its own — a fifth military district, on a par with its other four — said Robert Dalsjo, research director at the Swedish Defense Research Agency.

China has also been busy trying to establish itself in the region and use new unfrozen routes, one reason the NATO considers China a significant security challenge.

In its most recent strategy paper, adopted last summer in Madrid, NATO declared Russia to be “the most significant and direct threat to allies’ security and to peace and stability,” but for the first time addressed China, saying that its “stated ambitions and coercive policies challenge our interests, security and values.”

How to create a “northern bubble” to deter Russia and monitor China is one of NATO’s newest and biggest challenges.

In response to NATO’s enlargement, “Russia is putting increasing emphasis on the Arctic, where they’re stronger and less surrounded by NATO,” said Mr. Pesu of the Finnish Institute. Russia may have drawn down its troops to fight in Ukraine, but retains its air power, northern fleet, nuclear submarines and nuclear-armed missiles in the northern realms.

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Rows of colorful houses in a snowy coastal landscape.
Longyearbyen, Norway, in 2022. Fearing the Russian threat, Sweden, Finland, Norway and Denmark are merging their air forces, creating one with more planes than either Britain or France.Credit…Erin Schaff/The New York Times

“So it remains a pretty urgent concern,” he said. Finland, Sweden and Norway “see this most urgently,” even if some in NATO do not, he said. As a consequence, Finland, Sweden, Norway and Denmark have decided to merge their air forces, creating one with more planes than either Britain or France.

Until now, competition in the region was largely mediated through the Arctic Council, founded in 1996, which includes Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russia, Sweden and the United States, and promotes research and cooperation.

But it does not have a security component, and soon all members but Russia will be NATO members. The council has been “paused” since the Russian invasion of Ukraine in February 2022. When Russia’s chairmanship ended in May, Norway took over, so activity may pick up again.

Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 caused rethinking throughout NATO, and there was new anxiety about the Baltic States — Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania — combined with submarine hunts in Sweden and more serious war gaming, said Anna Wieslander, the director for Northern Europe at the Atlantic Council, a Washington-based research institution.

Gen. Philip M. Breedlove, then the supreme allied commander Europe, called for “an anti-access area denial” — to deny Russia entry to the Baltic Sea from Kaliningrad, the isolated Russian toehold with access to the sea.

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Camouflaged soldiers conduct a training exercise in front of two tanks.
Swedish Army conscripts during a training exercise on the island of Gotland, Sweden, last year. A NATO command created in 2018 defends the Atlantic sea routes, Scandinavia and the Arctic.Credit…Sergey Ponomarev for The New York Times
Washington started reinvesting militarily in the Arctic then with more ships, planes and military exercises, as did other NATO countries in the region. In 2018 NATO went so far as to set up a new operational command — a kind of regional headquarters that plans and conducts military operations to defend specific areas of NATO. The new command, based in Norfolk, Va., is navy-focused and defends the Atlantic sea routes, Scandinavia and the Arctic.

There remains a concern that China, which now has even closer ties to Russia, remains active in the Far North, building big icebreakers. “China will reach Europe through the Arctic,” Ms. Wieslander said.

One main question is whether the real Russian threat to Scandinavia will come from the sea, as Norway fears, or from the land, with a possible Russian invasion of the Baltic States or Finland, then a move westward.

Both Finland and Sweden, when it joins, want to be part of the same NATO operational command, given their long history of defense cooperation.

Norway belongs to the Norfolk command, and there is a logic to making both Finland and Sweden part of that command, since reinforcements would likely come from the West, across the Atlantic.

But there is perhaps more logic, given the current threat from Russia, for them to join the land-oriented command based in Brunssum, the Netherlands, which is charged with defending Central and Eastern Europe, including Poland and the Baltic nations.

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Icebergs near Kulusuk, Greenland, in 2019. Climate change is opening new sea routes and economic possibilities in the Arctic.
Credit…Felipe Dana/Associated Press

“There is logic for both,” said Niklas Granholm, deputy director of studies at the Swedish Defense Research Agency. “It’s not yet resolved.”

According to the Helsingin Sanomat newspaper, NATO is recommending putting both countries in the Brunssum command, despite Finland’s early interest in being part of Norfolk, which Sauli Niinisto, Finland’s president, visited in March.

That’s because it is easier for Finland to be reinforced from Norway and Sweden, Mr. Pesu, the Finnish Institute analyst, noted.

The fear is that a modernized Russian Northern Fleet could swing down through the straits between Greenland, Iceland and Britain, a move known in NATO as a “red right hook,” to cut sea lanes and underwater cables and threaten the American East Coast with cruise missiles.

Mr. Dalsjo of the Swedish Defense Research Agency, calling himself a heretic, cautions in a recent paper that this threat is real but may be overblown, especially after Russia’s losses in Ukraine.

Russia is predominantly a land power, and its northern fleet is considerably smaller than it was during the Cold War, when there were worries about the kind of major Soviet naval attack depicted in the Tom Clancy novel “Red Storm Rising.”

“If they didn’t do it then with 150 ships,” Mr. Dalsjo asked, “why would they do it now with 20?”

Police officers photographed from the rear in front of large apartment buildings.
Police officers stood outside several apartment buildings damaged after a drone attack in Moscow on Tuesday. Credit…Kirill Kudryavtsev/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

A day after a drone strike on Moscow, Kremlin officials jumped on the refusal of Ukrainian allies to denounce the attack as proof that Russia’s real war was with the West.

The Kremlin’s spokesman, Dmitri S. Peskov, said Russia “would have preferred to hear at least some words of condemnation” from Western capitals.

“We will calmly and deliberately think how to deal with this,” he said.

While none of Ukraine’s allies went so far as to endorse the drone attack, Britain’s foreign secretary said on Tuesday that Kyiv had “the right to project force beyond its borders.”

The U.S. response was more circumspect, but it stopped short of criticizing the first military strike to hit civilian areas in the Russian capital since the start of the war. Ukraine officials have said they were not “directly involved” in the drone strike.

From the outset of the conflict, Russia has portrayed the invasion of Ukraine as a defensive war provoked by the West, and on Wednesday it seized on the attack.

Dmitri A. Medvedev, the deputy head of Russia’s national security council and a former president, said Britain “de facto is leading an undeclared war against Russia” by providing Ukraine with military aid and called it “our eternal enemy.”

Known since the war began for staking out extreme positions, Mr. Medvedev argued that now any British official “can be considered as a legitimate military target.”

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A man sitting at a desk in front of papers, next to a flag.
Dmitri A. Medvedev, deputy head of Russia’s national security council, accused Britain of “leading an undeclared war against Russia.”Credit…Ekaterina Shtukina/Sputnik

The Russian ambassador in Washington, Anatoly Antonov, called the U.S. refusal to condemn the attack “an encouragement for Ukrainian terrorists,” his embassy said on the Telegram messaging app.

Russia has repeatedly hit civilian areas of Ukraine over the course of the war, though it has denied targeting nonmilitary sites. And in recent weeks it has turned up the barrage of missiles and attack drones aimed at Kyiv, the capital. Thousands of Ukrainian civilians, including children, have been killed in Russian airstrikes and artillery bombardments, U.N. officials say.

Though the drone strike on Tuesday was unusual, it was not the first one on Russian soil since the war began. Drones have hit military air bases deep inside Russia, as well as an oil facility near an airfield in the province of Kursk. And this month, drones exploded over the Kremlin.

The incursions continued on Wednesday, when, the Russian authorities said, Ukrainian drones attacked two oil refineries in the region of Krasnodar. They also said that four people had been injured by shelling in the border region of Belgorod.

Russia has long accused the West of waging a proxy war against it. Those claims grew louder this month when a group of Ukraine-based Russian paramilitary members staged a multiday raid in Russia’s Belgorod border region — apparently with U.S. armored vehicles.

A New York Times analysis found that at least three of what appeared to be American-made MRAPs had been part of the attack. A leader of one of the groups claimed the weapons had not been provided by the Ukrainian military.

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Damaged armored military vehicles stand in mud after a fight.
The aftermath of a cross-border raid in Russia’s Belgorod region last week. The image was released by the Russian military.Credit…Russian Defense Ministry Press Service

Russian officials have said that NATO’s decision to send weapons, which have become increasingly advance as the war has worn on, raises the risk of a direct confrontation and a potential nuclear war.

On Tuesday, President Vladimir V. Putin also made an oblique reference to this threat, calling the drone strike on Moscow an attempt “to create a response reaction from Russia.” He accused unspecified forces of trying to sabotage a Ukrainian nuclear plant occupied by Russia or to use “a type of a dirty bomb related to the nuclear industry.”

Although Western governments initially focused their military support for Ukraine on bolstering its defenses, over time, the desire to hasten an end the war has led to growing deliveries of offensive weapons to Kyiv.

Tensions between Moscow and Western capitals have worsened since the invasion, as have the economic sanctions imposed on Russia as penalty.

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The Russian president standing in an office with flags.
President Vladimir V. Putin said the drone strike in Moscow was an attempt “to create a response reaction from Russia.”Credit…Mikhail Metzel/Sputnik

At a security conference on Wednesday in Slovakia, France’s president, Emmanuel Macron, said that Western allies must give Ukraine “tangible and credible” security guarantees in its battle against Russia.

“If we want a credible, durable peace, if we want to hold our own against Russia, if we want to be credible with the Ukrainians, we must give Ukraine the means to prevent any new aggression and to include Ukraine in any new security architecture,” he said in a speech.

Mr. Macron was criticized early in the war over his insistence on not antagonizing Russia, but his approach toward Mr. Putin has hardened. He also expressed regret that France and other Western European countries had failed to heed warnings from countries on the European Union’s eastern edge about Russian belligerence.

On Wednesday, Germany said it had ordered four of the five Russian Consulates in the country to close after Moscow limited the number of German diplomatic staff allowed in Russia, the latest in an escalating tit-for-tat diplomatic dispute between the two countries.

The Russian Foreign Ministry was told to start shutting down its consulates in Germany immediately and to finish by the end of the year, said Christofer Burger, a spokesman for Germany’s Foreign Ministry.

One Russian Consulate and the Russian Embassy in Berlin will be allowed to remain open.

In Sweden, the U.S. secretary of state, Antony J. Blinken met with European officials on Wednesday to discuss trade and technology issues, cracking down on exports that could aid Russia.

On Thursday, Mr. Blinken is scheduled to meet with NATO foreign ministers to discuss the alliance summit planned for July, as well as the war in Ukraine and the prospects for Swedish membership in the alliance.

Erdogan cements his power with a victory in Turkey's presidential runoff election

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s two-decades of dominance over the country’s politics will continue after a win in Sunday’s election. Known for his combative populism and for reshaping the country’s laws to consolidate his power, Erdogan now looks ahead to another five-year term and ongoing concerns about the country’s direction and democracy.

Erdogan won 52.14% of the vote while 47.86% went for his opponent Kemal Kilicdaroglu, according to Ahmet Yener, the head of Turkey’s Supreme Election Council.

“It is not only us who won, it is Turkey,” Erdogan said, in a victory speech at the presidential palace in Ankara. “It is our nation that won with all of its elements. It is our democracy.”

Now the focus is on the state of that democracy and the country.

Turkey has played an increasingly robust and sometimes contentious role on the global stage as a key NATO member and major military power in the Black Sea.

At home, he still faces soaring inflation, a highly-criticized, sluggish response to massive earthquakes in February and concerns that he’s creating one-man rule.

Erdogan won votes by hyping threats to the country’s stability

Erdogan, 69, led a divisive campaign in which he tapped into the public’s fear of instability following a 2016 coup attempt and multiple conflicts. He accused his opponent of having ties to Kurdish militants, who conduct attacks against Turkish security forces in the southeast. He reminded people of the ongoing civil war next door in Syria. He employed religious, nationalist rhetoric in promising to make the country a global military and industrial power – even working a Turkish-built electric car into his campaign.

That apparently helped counter widespread dissatisfaction with an economic crisis that has seen high inflation and a weakened currency — apparently aggravated by Erdogan’s emphasis on maintaining low-interest rates. And the government’s poor building code enforcement and slow response to February’s earthquakes are still blamed by many for the high death toll — some 50,000 lives lost in Turkey.

Erdogan still benefits from memories of previous governments’ elitism

Two decades ago, Erdogan came into office as a champion of working-class people and religious conservatives who felt neglected and repressed by previous secular governments. For many years, women who wore headscarves were banned from attending schools or working in jobs. Erdogan changed those laws and to this day many people, conservative women in particular, see him as someone who looks after them.

At a polling station in Istanbul on Sunday, a mother and daughter cast their votes for Erdogan.

Supporters of the President Recep Tayyip Erdogan celebrate in Istanbul, Turkey, on Sunday.

Emrah Gurel/AP

“I don’t really think he will make anything better, but I have other reasons. I think he is more respectful of my choices and my freedom,” said the mother, Sabiha Dogan, meaning the headscarves she and her daughter wore.

As they entered the polling station, two women who supported the opposition made derogatory comments about their headscarves. Dogan and her daughter Hulya, felt validated in their choice of candidate.

“They only want democracy for themselves and not everyone, they won’t respect our freedoms,” said 24-year-old Hulya.

The survival of Turkish democracy is still at stake

For the millions who voted against him, Erdogan is seen as an authoritarian. He has stacked the judiciary, monopolizes the media and jails perceived opponents — including journalists and critics on social media. He’s accused of allowing corruption to flourish, leading to shoddy, unregulated construction that collapsed in the quakes. He’s replaced opposition mayors even though they won local elections.

This election was hardly a fair fight. Erdogan has near-total control of Turkey’s broadcast media. And while Erdogan made frequent and lengthy appearances on TV, his challenger, Kilicdaroglu, had to make do with social media and YouTube to get his message across. Erdogan also took advantage of government resources to hand out benefits to millions of citizens and raised the minimum wage several times in the last year.

But the election did seem to energize a surge in the country’s democratic culture. Turnout was high — 84% — and many Turks volunteered as citizen witnesses to ensure the safety of ballots. Many vow to continue efforts to push back on any abuses of power.

There are concerns that Erdogan will continue amassing one-man power. And many women and LGBTQ activists worry their freedoms will further decline in the next five years. During his campaign, Erdogan made several comments attacking Turkey’s LGBTQ community.

Rights organizations and activists are calling for unity to protect civil freedoms.

Some Syrian refugees see Erdogan’s win as cause for relief

Syrian refugee Ahmad Al-Ahmad, center, husband of Naziha Al-Ahmad, comforts his daughter as they bury Naziha in a cemetery after she died during an earthquake, in Elbistan, southeastern, Turkey, on Feb. 10, 2023. Syrians fleeing their country’s civil war were once welcomed in Turkey out of compassion. But as their numbers grew, so did calls for their return.

Francisco Seco/AP

Many of Turkey’s nearly 4 million Syrian refugees were among those celebrating Erdogan’s win. A decade ago he oversaw an open-door policy for refugees escaping war in neighboring Syria — though life for many of the refugees has still been difficult.

As the Turkish economy faltered, many began to see refugees as a burden. Opposition politicians, including Kilicdaroglu, scapegoated refugees and Erdogan’s refugee policy, leading to a rise in discrimination and hateful attacks. Kilicdaroglu ran an openly anti-refugee campaign. His promise to send all Syrians back to Syria was one of the most repeated slogans.

Erdogan also gave in to public pressure on the refugee issue. While he condemned Kilicdaroglu for his inflammatory language, the Turkish government has deported hundreds of Syrian men and Erdogan said he would build housing in Turkish controlled parts of Northeastern Syria to “resettle” 1 million refugees voluntarily. But many refugees still see him as being more sympathetic to them.

Erdogan will probably keep playing to East and West in international issues

Turkey is in NATO, sits close to the wars in Ukraine and Syria and often frustrates western powers in how it negotiates those conflicts.

Erdogan has maintained close ties with Russia and refused to participate in Western sanctions, while also supplying weapons to Ukraine. Analysts say Erdogan may eventually approve Sweden’s membership to NATO — which is important to the west in order to counter Russia — in exchange for F16 fighter planes from the United States. He showed Turkey’s usefulness to the West in helping broker a deal with the United Nations between Ukraine and Russia, to allow Ukrainian grain exports through a Russian blockade.

Russia’s President Vladimir Putin, right, and Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan talk to each other on the sidelines of the Conference on Interaction and Confidence Building Measures in Asia summit, in Astana, Kazakhstan, on Oct. 13, 2022.

Vyacheslav Prokofyev/AP

Meanwhile, he’s also expanded the Turkish military’s reach and control over areas in northern Syria — a concern to Kurdish groups allied with the U.S. in the ongoing fight against ISIS remnants.

The next five years will likely see a continuation of Erdogan walking a fine line and his transactional approach to foreign policy.

“There’s absolutely no reason to think that [Erdogan] would reverse course or soften his approach,” said political analyst Selim Koru.

“There is sort of a Western bloc that is broadly geopolitically aligned, and the Bloc wanted Turkey to be in its camp. Turkey essentially has said no, it wants its own camp and isn’t interested in participating in any kind of geopolitical alignment where it isn’t the boss,” said Koru.

Andrei Medvedev fought with Russia’s Wagner mercenaries in Ukraine, then requested asylum in Norway. The authorities there must now weigh his plea against solidarity with Ukraine.

A man in a baseball cap and jacket leaning against a building.
Andrei Medvedev, who fought with Russia’s Wagner mercenary group, is seeking asylum in Norway, while providing information on Wagner’s fight in Ukraine. Credit…Andrea Gjestvang for The New York Times
Sipping a $12 beer in one of the world’s wealthiest capitals, Andrei Medvedev reflected on the question hanging over him since he left the battlefields of Ukraine: Is he a hero or a war criminal?

He claims to have deserted from Russia’s notorious Wagner mercenary force during the monumental battle for the Ukrainian city of Bakhmut, and later to have escaped his native Russia by running across a frozen Arctic river. Now in Norway, Mr. Medvedev, 26, is seeking asylum, while providing information on Wagner to Norwegian authorities.

Since arriving in the country in January, Mr. Medvedev has voluntarily attended about a dozen interviews with Norwegian police officers investigating war crimes in Ukraine, including his potential role in them. Mr. Medvedev has described killing Ukrainians in combat and witnessing summary executions of comrades accused of cowardice. He claims that he did not participate or witness war crimes such as killings of prisoners of war and civilians.

“Yes, I have killed, I saw comrades die. It was war,” he said in an interview at an Oslo bar. “I have nothing to hide.”

His unlikely journey has made Mr. Medvedev one of only a handful of publicly known Russian combatants to seek protection in Europe after participating in the invasion. His asylum request is now forcing Norway to decide a case that pits the country’s humanitarian ethos against an increasingly assertive national security policy and solidarity with Ukraine.

To his lawyer, the credible threat of revenge facing Mr. Medvedev if he were sent back home qualifies him for asylum. And some Norwegian politicians have said that encouraging soldiers like Mr. Medvedev to defect would weaken Russia’s army and hasten the end of the war.

But as Norway evaluates his claim, it is facing pressure from activists in Ukraine and Western Europe, who say giving safe haven in Europe to Russian fighters, especially mercenaries like Mr. Medvedev, fails to hold Russians accountable for the invasion. And the former fighter may have complicated his own request with bar fights and detentions in Norway, and by briefly posting a video on YouTube suggesting he wanted to return to Russia.

More broadly, Mr. Medvedev’s case puts a spotlight on a policy dilemma that European governments have largely avoided grappling with in public: How should the region treat Russian deserters, and the hundreds of thousands of combatants in Russia’s war in Ukraine, in general?

“It goes to the core of who we are in Europe,” said Cecilie Hellestveit, an expert in armed conflict law affiliated with Norway’s human rights watchdog and a former member of the country’s asylum appeal board. “It forces us to re-evaluate our approach to human rights in a way that we have not been willing to do until now.”

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Blue and yellow Ukrainian flags in front of buildings.
Ukrainian flags in near the Russian Embassy in Oslo. Credit…Andrea Gjestvang for The New York Times

The European Union, and affiliated states like Norway, have had to balance humanitarian needs with war crimes accountability before, most recently in processing immigration claims of people who fought in the Balkan and Syrian civil wars.

But the scale of the war in Ukraine, its proximity to the European Union, and the participation of two conventional armies means that the Russian invasion presents a much greater challenge to the region’s asylum system, Ms. Hellestveit said.

Four months after Mr. Medvedev requested asylum, his claim remains pending. Norway’s immigration agency said all asylum cases filed by Russians who fled to evade military service were on hold while they analyze the human rights conditions in the country. The agency said it could not comment on individual applications for privacy reasons.

Some humanitarian law experts in Norway say Mr. Medvedev’s unresolved request reflects the government’s reluctance to bring further attention to a case that could divide the public, get ahead of the policies of other European states and strain relations with Kyiv. Norway has been a fervent supporter of the Ukrainian cause, committing $7.5 billion worth of economic and military aid, and accepting about 40,000 Ukrainian refugees.

“This case has a lot of conflicting rights, a lot of conflicting obligations and a lot of conflicting politics,” said Paal Nesse, the head of Norwegian Organization for Asylum Seekers, a nonprofit providing legal aid to applicants.

Norway and E.U. countries have struggled to formulate a common approach for asylum claims submitted by Russians who have fled the country to avoid military service, a much larger group of applicants than men who engaged in combat, like Mr. Medvedev.

The European Union’s Agency for Asylum said in a written response to questions that it is up to member states to decide who deserves protection.

Pavel Filatiev, a former Russian paratrooper who requested asylum in France after fighting in Ukraine, said he was waiting for a decision eight months after submitting his application. A third publicly known Russian deserter in Europe, a former army mechanic named Nikita Chibrin, has had a pending asylum claim in Spain since November.

The legal uncertainty, financial problems and social isolation are difficult to bear, Mr. Filatiev said in a phone interview, but he added that he considered himself fortunate and was grateful to his French hosts.

“I understand that my decision to leave will always haunt me,” he said.

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A man in a white shirt sitting at a restaurant table.
Pavel Filatiev in Paris in September. A former Russian paratrooper who fought in Ukraine, he has requested asylum in France. Credit…Lewis Joly/Associated Press

Mr. Medvedev’s has a troubled history of antisocial behavior. Already, he has been detained twice in Norway for getting into fights in bars and once in Sweden for entering the country illegally. (He was returned to Norway.) In Russia, he spent four years in jail for robbery and getting into fights, according to court records.

People who know him have said those actions could be a consequence of a lifetime of trauma: in a violent family home, a Siberian orphanage and Russian jails, and on Ukrainian battlefields.

In addition to his run-ins with the law, Mr. Medvedev said he had also repeatedly clashed in Oslo with Ukrainians, most recently while visiting a local Soviet military memorial on Victory Day.

Such run-ins have underlined the tensions between the Russian defectors and Ukrainian refugees across Europe. Natalia Lutsyk, the head of the Ukrainian Association in Norway, said the lack of international cooperation prevented Norway and other nations from thoroughly investigating war crimes committed in Ukraine.

“Thus, Medvedev and his companions remain unpunished,” she added.

The New York Times spent several weeks interviewing Mr. Medvedev and researching his personal history since he left the front in November and went into hiding in Russia. His account of his military service has contained contradictory or unverifiable claims. Some basic facts of his life, however, have been corroborated by public records and interviews with acquaintances.

The weight of this evidence shows that Mr. Medvedev enlisted with Wagner in July 2022, two days after finishing his latest prison sentence.

Wagner’s founder, Yevgeny V. Prigozhin, in April called Mr. Medvedev a “jackass who spent two days in Wagner, who can’t identify anyone.” After his escape to Norway, Mr. Prigozhin called him dangerous. He has not publicly threatened Mr. Medvedev.

In an interview in Oslo, Mr. Medvedev described his new living conditions, provided mostly by the Norwegian state. According to him, they include a house, home visits by a Norwegian language teacher, an integration assistant, ski and mountain bike trips, and “Taco Saturdays” with a personal security detail.

He also claims to be a subject of a bidding war between filmmakers, an assertion that could not be verified.

But days after the interview, Mr. Medvedev declared that he had contacted the Russian Embassy to get help returning home.

“I hope that I could find peace and calm here, that I could leave behind the politics, the war, the army,” he said in a video published on YouTube. “It was not to be.”

He later deleted the videos and declined to speak again when contacted by phone.

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A memorial depicting a soldier in front of flowers and near graves.
Mr. Medvedev said he repeatedly clashed in public with Ukrainians, most recently during his visit to a Soviet memorial in Oslo during Victory Day. Credit…Andrea Gjestvang for The New York Times

His lawyer, Brynjulf Risnes, said his public comments should not influence the asylum claim, which is decided on humanitarian grounds. But Mr. Medvedev’s violent past and controversial behavior, which has turned him into a minor local celebrity, have confused and alienated many Norwegians, sapping sympathy for Russian defectors.

Under Norwegian law, refusing to fight in an illegal war may grant a right to asylum. However, this right does not apply to war criminals, and local prosecutors can charge people who they believe have committed war crimes elsewhere.

A Norwegian criminal police spokesman said Mr. Medvedev was a witness, not a suspect, in its investigation of war crimes in Ukraine, and that, to date, officers “have not found grounds for charges.”

Mr. Medvedev said his cooperation had helped investigators locate Wagner facilities in Ukraine and Russia and map the group’s structure.

The case is also being followed by Ukrainian officials, who are conducting their own investigation of Mr. Medvedev. Shortly after his arrival in Norway, Ukraine’s ambassador in Oslo told local news media that her government could request his extradition.

Such a request would present Norway with another dilemma, forcing it to choose between a show of support for an ally and upholding the basic principle of its asylum law. This law states that an asylum seeker cannot be sent to a country where they may not get a fair trial.

The office of Ukraine’s prosecutor general said in a written response to questions that it checked all Russian servicemen who arrive in foreign countries for potential participation in war crimes, and that it had requested Norway’s legal assistance in investigating Mr. Medvedev.

Mr. Medvedev said he had refused to see Ukrainian investigators who asked to meet him in Norway.

“They are always after me,” he said. “I’m helping them to end this war.”

Constant Méheut contributed reporting from Paris, Alina Lobzina from London and Natalia Yermak from Kyiv, Ukraine.