BERLIN — It was late May, as 10,000 spectators arrived at Barthélemy Boganda Stadium in Bangui, the capital of the Central African Republic, for a special film premiere. There was a red carpet for the VIPs arriving for the film "Tourist" — a feature that glorifies the use of Russian mercenaries, who heroically defend the local population from murderous rebels in a fictional African conflict.
According to the Russian media, the propaganda film was financed by Yevgeny Prigozhin. The Kremlin-linked oligarch is considered the mastermind behind Russia's best-known mercenary outfit, the Wagner group. But their real activities in the Central African Republic contradict the movie script.
For example, CNN uncovered apparent war crimes in a mosque in the city of Bambari on February 15. Eyewitnesses reported indiscriminate shots and at least 12 deaths, heavily implicating Russian mercenaries and the Central African army. There were no rebels among the dead, they said, citing multiple other similar incidents.
Moscow uses "state-financed military contractors' in at least 16 African countries to "disguise and plausibly deny Moscow's direct role."
This coincides with findings of the United Nations Working Group on the Use of Mercenaries. The Working Group is "deeply concerned" about the connection between mercenaries and a series of brutal attacks in the Central African Republic. One receives "reports on significant human rights violations." The UN emphasizes the role of the Wagner Group, whose activities are also documented in Libya.
The West is also watching the growing influence of the Russian organization in other parts of Africa. The U.S. warned that Moscow uses "state-financed military contractors' in at least 16 African countries to "disguise and plausibly deny Moscow's direct role."
The German daily Bild quotes from a secret paper of the German Federal Foreign Ministry which was released in 2019. According to the paper, the Wagner group is a Russian "hybrid instrument to exert political, economic and military influence." Its capabilities are "of great interest to autocratic regimes in a possible use against their own population."
The Wagner group was also expected to be talked about this week in Berlin, at the second international conference on the future of Libya. German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas had invited Moscow to the meeting. The first Libya summit in Berlin in January 2020 was a response to the internationalization of the conflict: the Gulf States, Turkey, Russia — the list of participants is long.
A preview for the movie, Tourist, an action film about a group of Russian mercenaries in Central African Republic
An end to military support for civil war parties was agreed at the conference. Admittedly, the new transitional government in Libya gives cause for hope. But the withdrawal of foreign troops and mercenaries, which was agreed in the ceasefire, is still an issue. The German foreign ministry says that the Libyan transitional government had repeatedly reiterated its call for the withdrawal to be completed.
According to information from Die Welt sources, there are currently 7,191 mercenaries from the Wagner group deployed around the world, the majority in Syria, partly for onward travel to other countries. These include counter-terrorism units, telecommunications battalions, air defense and eight "political scientists' — most likely working on disinformation campaigns. The mercenaries had supported the advance of renegade General Khalifa Haftar towards the capital Tripoli, a mockery of international efforts for peace.
So far, there is no sign of a withdrawal. "The Wagner group has not left the country," says Paul Stronski from the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. The mercenaries are a "low-cost instrument for power projection" for Russia. They are dealing with a "semi-independent actor" who, although controversial with the Russian army and Foreign Ministry, acts in the interest of President Vladimir Putin. "Otherwise, he would stamp out Wagner the way he did with other Russian military companies."
Putin is focused on regaining Russia's lost influence in Africa
Formed around 2014, the group is said to have been involved in the wars in eastern Ukraine and Syria, always in line with Putin's interests. Wagner commander Dmitri Utkin, a former Russian intelligence officer with a fondness for the composer Richard Wagner, personally received a medal of valor from the Russian president.
But the mastermind and main financier is probably Yevgeny Prigozhin. The oligarch is nicknamed "Putin's cook" because he once personally served the ruler in one of his restaurants. At that time, he made millions with lucrative catering contracts from the Kremlin. In the meantime, he is believed to have brought in billions by providing strategic services. According to U.S. investigators, he influenced the 2016 U.S. elections with his notorious "troll factory" in Saint Petersburg. For the services of the Wagner Group, he is apparently paid handsomely — often with concessions of raw material.
For Wagner, autocratic countries are a prime target for new business. Putin is also focused on regaining Russia's lost influence in Africa. Since Russian trade volume on the continent is low, Putin relies on military cooperation. The Wagner Group is his handy instrument for delicate operations in which political responsibility and too much attention are to be avoided — but which, as in Libya, give him weight at international negotiating tables.
Equipment from Russian Armed Forces'in 2016 that would be sent to to be sent to Palmyra, Syria — Bobylev Sergei/TASS/ ZUMA
Sometimes the mercenaries wear weapons, sometimes laptops. The focus is often on who is in charge — or could be in charge in the future. Facebook deleted numerous pages in 2019 that were intended to influence politics in eight African countries. The social network announced that the campaigns could have been traced back to companies associated with Prigozhin.
In Zimbabwe, the opposition accused Russian advisers associated with the Wagner group of exerting influence in favor of the government. And in Madagascar, according to media reports, consultants of the company supported several presidential candidates — without success, none of them won.
Denials are coming from the Russian side. "Wagner's influence on local conflicts is often significantly exaggerated and misinterpreted," says Andrei Liakhov. The Russian lawyer advises military companies in Africa. "Wherever Russian companies have a project to develop mineral resources, you will also find a military company that monitors it," he says.
According to Liakhov, companies such as the Wagner Group are not prepared for warfare, which has been seen in Mozambique. There, Liakhov admits, the Wagner group tried to fight Islamic terrorists two years ago in the hope of finding gas fields. After considerable losses, they withdrew.
The force is also active in Sudan and tried to keep long-term dictator Omar Hassan Al-Bashir in power
But flight details seen by Die Welt appear to point to an uptick in activity throughout Africa. On Jan. 4, 160 mercenaries of the Wagner group landed at 3.50 a.m. at the Libyan Al Khadim airport. The contingent included snipers, members of combat units and the alleged head of the Libya mission, known as "Blanket." Around one-third of the fighters moved directly to the Central African Republic and the fifth combat unit (238 people) was relocated to the Libyan city of Sirte.
The force is also active in Sudan and tried to keep long-term dictator Omar Hassan Al-Bashir in power. "The government has hired them to suppress demonstrations more effectively," says Hafiz Mohamed, director of the human rights organization Justice Africa Sudan.
The Wagner group defends the former militia leader Hemeti, whom many consider Sudan's new strong man. The Russians help train young Sudanese who send Hemeti to Yemen for war. There they fight alongside Saudi Arabia, the majority of the wage remains with the warlord.
Mohamed says: "Wagner helps those who can afford to pay."
Will flying be greener? More comfortable? Less frequent? As the world eyes a post-COVID reality, we look at ways the airline industry has been changing through a pandemic that has devastated air travel.
It's hard to overstate the damage the pandemic has had on the airline industry, with global revenues dropping by 40% in 2020 and dozens of airlines around the world filing for bankruptcy. One moment last year when the gravity became particularly apparent was when Asian carriers (in countries with low COVID-19 rates) began offering "flights to nowhere" — starting and ending at the same airport as a way to earn some cash from would-be travelers who missed the in-flight experience.
More than a year later today, experts believe that air traffic won't return to normal levels until 2024.
But beyond the financial woes, the unprecedented slowdown in air travel may bring some silver linings as key aspects of the industry are bound to change once back in full spin, with some longer-term effects on aviation already emerging. Here are some major transformations to expect in the coming years:
Cleaner aviation fuel
The U.S. administration of President Joe Biden and the airline industry recently agreed to the ambitious goal of replacing all jet fuel with sustainable alternatives by 2050. Already in a decade, the U.S. aims to produce three billion gallons of sustainable fuel — about one-tenth of current total use — from waste, plants and other organic matter.
While greening the world's road transport has long been at the top of the climate agenda, aviation is not even included under the Paris Agreement. But with air travel responsible for roughly 12% of all CO2 emissions from transport, and stricter international regulation on the horizon, the industry is increasingly seeking sustainable alternatives to petroleum-based fuel.
Fees imposed on the airline industry should be funneled into a climate fund.
In Germany, state broadcaster Deutsche Welle reports that the world's first factory producing CO2-neutral kerosene recently started operations in the town of Wertle, in Lower Saxony. The plant, for which Lufthansa is set to become the pilot customer, will produce CO2-neutral kerosene through a circular production cycle incorporating sustainable and green energy sources and raw materials. Energy is supplied through wind turbines from the surrounding area, while the fuel's main ingredients are water and waste-generated CO2 coming from a nearby biogas plant.
Farther north, Norwegian Air Shuttle has recently submitted a recommendation to the government that fees imposed on the airline industry should be funneled into a climate fund aimed at developing cleaner aviation fuel, according to Norwegian news site E24. The airline also suggested that the government significantly reduce the tax burden on the industry over a longer period to allow airlines to recover from the pandemic.
High-flying ambitions for the sector
Hydrogen and electrification
Some airline manufacturers are betting on hydrogen, with research suggesting that the abundant resource has the potential to match the flight distances and payload of a current fossil-fuel aircraft. If derived from renewable resources like sun and wind power, hydrogen — with an energy-density almost three times that of gasoline or diesel — could work as a fully sustainable aviation fuel that emits only water.
One example comes out of California, where fuel-cell specialist HyPoint has entered a partnership with Pennsylvania-based Piasecki Aircraft Corporation to manufacture 650-kilowatt hydrogen fuel cell systems for aircrafts. According to HyPoint, the system — scheduled for commercial availability product by 2025 — will have four times the energy density of existing lithium-ion batteries and double the specific power of existing hydrogen fuel-cell systems.
Meanwhile, Rolls-Royce is looking to smash the speed record of electrical flights with a newly designed 23-foot-long model. Christened the Spirit of Innovation, the small plane took off for the first time earlier this month and successfully managed a 15-minute long test flight. However, the company has announced plans to fly the machine faster than 300 mph (480 km/h) before the year is out, and also to sell similar propulsion systems to companies developing electrical air taxis or small commuter planes.
New aircraft designs
Airlines are also upgrading aircraft design to become more eco-friendly. Air France just received its first upgrade of a single-aisle, medium-haul aircraft in 33 years. Fleet director Nicolas Bertrand told French daily Les Echos that the new A220 — that will replace the old A320 model — will reduce operating costs by 10%, fuel consumption and CO2 emissions by 20% and noise footprint by 34%.
International first class will be very nearly a thing of the past.
The pandemic has also ushered in a new era of consumer demand where privacy and personal space is put above luxury. The retirement of older aircraft caused by COVID-19 means that international first class — already in steady decline over the last decades — will be very nearly a thing of the past. Instead, airplane manufacturers around the world (including Delta, China Eastern, JetBlue, British Airways and Shanghai Airlines) are betting on a new generation of super-business minisuites where passengers have a privacy door. The idea, which was introduced by Qatar Airways in 2017, is to offer more personal space than in regular business class but without the lavishness of first class.
Aerial view of Rome's Fiumicino airportcommons.wikimedia.org
Rome's Fiumicino Airport has become the first in the world to earn "the COVID-19 5-Star Airport Rating" from Skytrax, an international airline and airport review and ranking site, Italian daily La Repubblica reports. Skytrax, which publishes a yearly annual ranking of the world's best airports and issues the World Airport Awards, this year created a second list to specifically call out airports with the best health and hygiene standards.
The pandemic has also accelerated the shift towards contactless traveling, with more airports harnessing the power of biometrics — such as facial recognition or fever screening — to reduce touchpoints and human contact. Similar technology can also be used to more efficiently scan physical objects, such as explosive detection. Ultimately, passengers will be able to "check-in" and go through a security screening anywhere at the airports, removing queues and bottlenecks.
Data privacy issues
However, as pointed out in Canadian publication The Lawyer's Daily, increased use of AI and biometrics also means increased privacy concerns. For example, health and hygiene measures like digital vaccine passports also mean that airports can collect data on who has been vaccinated and the type of vaccine used.
Auckland Airport, New Zealand
The billion-dollar question: Will we fly less?
At the end of the day, even with all these (mostly positive) changes that we've seen take shape over the past 18 months, the industry faces major uncertainty about whether air travel will ever return to the pre-COVID levels. Not only are people wary about being in crowded and closed airplanes, but the worth of long-distance business travel in particular is being questioned as many have seen that meetings can function remotely, via Zoom and other online apps.
Trying to forecast the future, experts point to the years following the 9/11 terrorist attacks as at least a partial blueprint for what a recovery might look like in the years ahead. Twenty years ago, as passenger enthusiasm for flying waned amid security fears following the attacks, airlines were forced to cancel flights and put planes into storage.
40% of Swedes intend to travel less
According to McKinsey, leisure trips and visits to family and friends rebounded faster than business flights, which took four years to return to pre-crisis levels in the UK. This time too, business travel is expected to lag, with the consulting firm estimating only 80% recovery of pre-pandemic levels by 2024.
But the COVID-19 crisis also came at a time when passengers were already rethinking their travel habits due to climate concerns, while worldwide lockdowns have ushered in a new era of remote working. In Sweden, a survey by the country's largest research company shows that 40% of the population intend to travel less even after the pandemic ends. Similarly in the UK, nearly 60% of adults said during the spring they intended to fly less after being vaccinated against COVID-19 — with climate change cited as a top reason for people wanting to reduce their number of flights, according to research by the University of Bristol.
At the same time, major companies are increasingly forced to face the music of the environmental movement, with several corporations rolling out climate targets over the last few years. Today, five of the 10 biggest buyers of corporate air travel in the US are technology companies: Amazon, IBM, Google, Apple and Microsoft, according to Taipei Times, all of which have set individual targets for environmental stewardship. As such, the era of flying across the Atlantic for a two-hour executive meeting is likely in its dying days.
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