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Forecast podcast: Anti-Putin militias in Ukraine mount cross-border attack as war drags on

A man in military uniform-ish stands holding a border crossing sign written in Russian

Editors Jimmy Lovaas and Alex Moore discuss Ukraine-aligned attack in Belgorod, Russia, plus more on the Greek parliament being sworn in and then dissolved, Turkey’s presidential election runoff, the Korea-Pacific Islands Summit in Seoul and a U.S. debt ceiling deadline.

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These stories and others are also available in our free weekly Forecast newsletter.

This episode was produced with work from Factal editors Jess Fino, David Wyllie, Jaime Calle Moreno, Joe Veyera and Alex Moore. Produced and edited by Jimmy Lovaas. Music courtesy of Andrew Gospe

Have feedback, suggestions or events we’ve missed? Drop us a note: hello@factal.com.


Factal Forecast podcast transcript

This is an unofficial transcript meant for reference. Accuracy is not guaranteed.

JIMMY LOVAAS, HOST:

Welcome to the Factal Forecast, a look at the week’s biggest stories and what they mean from the editors at Factal. I’m Jimmy Lovaas.

Today is May 25th.

In this week’s forecast we’ve got the Greek parliament being sworn in and then dissolved, Turkey’s presidential election runoff, the Korea-Pacific Islands Summit in Seoul, a U.S. debt ceiling deadline and a look at the Ukraine-aligned attack in Belgorod, Russia. 

You can also read about these stories and more in our weekly newsletter, which you can find a link to in the show notes.

New Greek parliament to be sworn in before being dissolved

Information compiled by Jess Fino

JIMMY: Greece’s parliament will be sworn in on Sunday – and then dissolved the following day after last week’s vote failed to elect a new government.

Just last Sunday, Greek incumbent Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis’ New Democracy party secured almost 41 percent of the vote in the parliamentary elections, just four seats short of a majority. 

Following the result, Mitsotakis announced he would call for fresh elections on June 25 in order to avoid a coalition.

Now, Since there was no agreement on a coalition following Sunday’s vote, protocol demands the parliament to be sworn in and then dissolved. 

Under a new electoral system coming into effect next month, the winning party is granted 50 bonus seats in the second round, which means Mitsotakis will likely be allowed to form a single-party government.

Turkey presidential election runoff

Information compiled by David Wyllie

JIMMY: Millions of voters will go to the polls across Turkey on Sunday for the second round of the country’s presidential election. 

Incumbent President Recep Tayyip Erdogan faces off against opposition leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu in a run-off.

The first round of the presidential election, held on May 14, saw a better-than-expected finish for Erdogan. He finished at 49 and a half percent, almost five percent ahead of Kilicdaroglu.

Still, with neither candidate gaining a majority of the vote, the election has triggered a runoff and a renewed campaign as each side attempts to win over new votes. 

Erdogan has secured a crucial endorsement from third-place candidate and ultranationalist Sinan Ogan, who won just over 5 percent of the vote, and he looks set to win, a sharp reversal of fortunes after predictions of his defeat only two weeks ago. 

Kilicdaroglu has appealed to the youth vote and the 8 million Turks who didn’t vote in the first round.

Now, if Erdogan wins, he will begin the five-year term as president, cementing a grasp on power that has barely wavered since his Justice and Development Party (AKP) took power in 2002

Parliamentary elections, held on the same day as the presidential election’s first round, saw Erdogan’s party remain as the largest group even though it lost seats, with his People’s Alliance coalition holding on to a majority giving him potential control of the executive and the legislature.

Korea-Pacific Islands Summit

Information compiled by Jaime Calle Moreno

JIMMY: South Korea’s President Yoon Suk Yeol will host his first Korea-Pacific Islands summit in Seoul on Monday.

All 18 members of the Pacific Islands Forum have been invited to Seoul for the meetings.

They are expected to discuss strategic partnerships between the country and the region, along with issues such as climate change and disaster response.

Now, the forum, and the individual islands within it, are beginning to have a larger impact and importance in the region. 

The United States is set to plan a similar summit in 2023, the second in two years, after having to cancel a visit to Papua New Guinea. 

Other countries in the region, such as South Korea, are pushing for larger cooperation with islands in an effort to parallel China’s growing influence there as well. 

Korea will also be using this summit in its bid to host the World Expo 2030, with voting set to take place in November.

US debt ceiling deadline

Information compiled by Joe Veyera

JIMMY: The U.S. Treasury will potentially be unable to meet the government’s financial obligations as soon as next Thursday. That is, if a deal is not reached to raise the debt ceiling.

The tenor of talks between the White House and Republicans has swung back and forth between optimistic and pessimistic, with the two sides reportedly far apart on future federal spending levels

The Treasury has also reportedly asked federal agencies if upcoming payments can be made at a later date, in an effort to stave off the so-called “X-date” for as long as possible.

Now, a default would have devastating effects on the U.S. economy, with financial markets taking a significant hit and a recession almost certain to follow. 

Everything from veterans benefits to Social Security payments could be held up by the debt standoff, as well as wages for more than 4 million federal workers.

Ukraine-aligned attack in Belgorod, Russia

Information compiled by Alex Moore

JIMMY: Our last item for this forecast is an update on the war in Ukraine. For more on that we’ve got the lead for our Europe desk, Alex Moore. 

JIMMY: Hello, Alex. 

ALEX: Hello, Jimmy. 

JIMMY: So glad you’re here. I always look forward to you coming on and getting us educated on what’s going on with the war. I guess to start, it seems like a lot of the news surrounding Ukraine lately has actually involved Belgorod, Russia. Can you give us a bit of a recap on what’s going on there?

ALEX  Yeah, of course. On Monday, early Monday morning, there were a couple of Ukraine-aligned militias, that consist of anti-Kremlin Russian militants, that penetrated the Russian state border into Belgorod Oblast, coming from Sumy Oblast and Kharkiv Oblast in Ukraine. And this ended up being the most significant breach — ground breach that is — of Moscow’s border since the outbreak of the war last year. So the militias are known as the Russian Volunteer Corp and the Freedom of Russia Legion and they consist of former Russian citizens that oppose the Kremlin for various reasons, for the Russian Volunteer Corps there. You know, they’ve got some pretty onerous far-right, fascist, czarist ideology. But nonetheless, they attacked some border checkpoints and advanced into three settlements within Belgorod – so a few kilometers into the border. So this was a significantly more advanced advance, so to speak, into Belgorod compared to the March – the similar incident in March in Bryansk Oblast. And they ended up partaking in essentially a firefight involving cross-border shelling and small arms fire for the course of about a day, centered around a place called Grayvoron in Belgorod Oblast. So Russia, a day later, claimed to have fully repulsed the attack; claimed to have killed 70 militants. A day later, the militia groups in question gave sort of an ad hoc press conference and they acknowledged retreating back across the border. They only admitted to two deaths on their side, but they did claim to have captured some Russian equipment and vice versa. Russia claimed to have captured some of their equipment.

JIMMY: And what’s the latest then? How [do] things stand at the moment?

ALEX: The latest is, again, that the anti-Kremlin militias have confirmed that they’ve sort of retreated back across the border in the Ukraine. In Belgorod, for a day, they instituted sort of a rarity in Russia, which is a counterterrorism regime, which we’ve seen them do in the past on a couple of notable occasions, but it essentially locks the region down. And Belgorod did that for a full day while the Defense Ministry and the FSB responded to the incursion into Belgorod. So, significantly more advanced than the Bryansk incident from early March. Obviously, we’ve seen Ukraine – allegedly Ukraine – target deep within Russia with drone strikes; Engels Air Base most notably a couple times. But as far as ground advances go this was the most significant one, advancing a couple – a couple of kilometers and a couple of towns into Belgorod. Reportedly, Ukrainian sources and their defense intelligence complex, reported that Russia even went so far as to evacuate some tactical nuclear weapons that are positioned in Belgorod, sort of close to where the combat was taking place. So it was a pretty significant flare up within Russian soil. And Belgorod especially has seen almost constant daily cross-border shelling and activation of air defense over the city of Belgorod, but this was the first time we’ve seen sort of a significant assault with ground forces into internationally recognized Russian territory.

JIMMY: What have the reactions to this been like? I know Russia has obviously had a strong reaction, but, you know, how did Ukraine respond and what was the international response like?

ALEX: Russia, as noted, they implemented the counterterrorism regime and they referred to it as just outright terrorism. Ukraine has essentially denied direct involvement, but they did admit to, “exchanging information,” was the quote, with the militants, though they reiterated that they did not directly partake in the raid. And, sort of like, the relationship between these militias and the Ukrainian military is a bit convoluted. We don’t really know the extent to which they are cooperating. There are certain reports that the Freedom of Russia Legion is folded into the International Legion of Ukraine. If you recall, back in the early days of the war, there were foreign fighters flooding into the conflict. They were creations of sort of hodgepodge units that were, in some instances, folded into the National Guard, but it’s pretty unclear the extent to which there’s direct cooperation. But interestingly, the US, they spoke relatively harshly about the attack. It does appear – there’s not direct confirmation, but there’s a lot of visual evidence to corroborate that – a couple of US-supplied MRAPS, so armored vehicles, were seized by Russia and were used by the Russian militias. And the US has been extremely, consistently and vocally – in public and also very presumably in private – opposed to Ukraine striking internationally recognized Russian territory, and especially with US-provided weapons, given the escalatory risk involved there. And I think we can safely assume that behind closed doors and private channels those are probably even more direct and harsh, sort of, admonishments of Ukraine doing that. Especially again, given the pretty onerous Nazi, czarist ideologies, specifically of the Russian Volunteer Corps, which was involved in the raid. So the US response is notable there. Ukraine also sort of struck a bit of a trolling tone, one might say, given the ways in which this very limited incursion into Belgorod mirrored the 2014 Russian invasion of Ukraine in the early days of that prior to Russia just outwardly sending in defense ministry troops in mid to late 2014. So there were some comments sort of trolling Russian talking points from April and May of 2014, when Russia was, you know, denying direct involvement and arming and, sort of, command and control of the “separatist,” quote unquote, elements in eastern Ukraine. So the responses were notable for a few reasons.

JIMMY: Well, this wouldn’t be a forecast if we didn’t talk about what might happen in the future. So what can you tell us about what we should be watching for next?

ALEX: Yeah, the, again, we don’t know the extent to which Kyiv directed this. But if there is a strategic rationale, my guess, and it’s likely, that it would be to divert Russian forces along the very vast line of contact in the occupied parts of Ukraine toward defending their state borders in the northern northeast portion of the country and from the border regions, because clearly Russia was caught off guard by this. You know, the fact that a few dozen, 70 or so, militiamen were able to advance a few towns into Belgorod is a bit of an eye opener. So potentially, they’re hoping that Russia sort of cycles personnel from the occupied parts of Ukraine to defend the state border, which would soften defense lines for an anticipated Ukrainian counter-offensive. We don’t know exactly where that’s going to be, but the war is in sort of a state of flux right now with Bakhmut falling to Wagner and Russian forces, which was the main major offensive happening for multiple months in Ukraine. So now that that has essentially culminated, the war is in a bit of a state of flux. Ukraine did launch some limited counter attacks to the flanks of Bakhmut in the northeast and southeast and holds high ground that overlooks Bakhmut. So the Russian Defense Ministry, which is now in the process of taking over the city from Wagner forces, is in a bit of a precarious position there. Some people are saying they’re at direct risk of being partially encircled. I don’t know if we’re ready to say that yet, but there is definitely topographical factors in play there that make that sort of a precarious hold in the city. We could see Ukraine try to cross the Dnipro into Kherson; we could see them push south from Zaporizhzhia  to sort of sever the land bridge to Crimea. We just don’t really know what Ukraine is going to do next. But what has happened over the last few weeks is we’ve seen a resumption of consistent long-range Russian missile strikes and drone strikes in Kyiv and to the west of Kyiv in Ukraine. Those had essentially completely paused for two months following the fall and winter Russian missile campaign that was consistently targeting critical energy infrastructure in central and western Ukraine. So we’ve seen a massive uptick in the last two and a half, three weeks now of relatively consistent Russian attacks. These are different than those. They appear to be targeting mainly military sites, logistical hubs, ammo depots; air defense sites being a big one. So that’s sort of a trend that we’ve been monitoring over the last couple of weeks that I expect to continue. So yeah, a lot of moving parts. And again, the war with Bakhmut coming to, sort of, the culmination, the war is in a bit of a state of flux right now. And Ukraine’s kind of got the initiative on what happens next.

JIMMY: Well, Alex, we’ll leave it there for today, but I know we’ll have you back in the future as things develop. Always appreciate your insight here. Thanks so much.

ALEX: Yeah, thank you. Great to be on. 

JIMMY: Take care.

JIMMY: As always, thank you for listening to the Factal Forecast. We publish our forward-looking podcast and newsletter each Thursday to help you get a jump-start on the week ahead. Please subscribe and review wherever you find your podcasts. We’d love it if you’d consider telling a friend about us.  

Today’s episode included contributions from Factal editors Jess Fino, David Wyllie, Jaime Calle Moreno and Joe Veyera. Our interview featured editor Alex Moore and it was produced and edited by me – Jimmy Lovaas. Our music comes courtesy of Andrew Gospe.

Until next time, if you have any feedback, suggestions or events we’ve missed, drop us a note by emailing hello@factal.com

This transcript may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability not guaranteed. 

Copyright © 2023 Factal. All rights reserved.

Music: ‘Factal Theme’ courtesy of Andrew Gospe

Top photo: A photo released by the so-called Russian Volunteer Corps shows a member of the group posing with a sign at the Graivoron border crossing in Kozinka in Russia’s Belgorod region. (Photo:Russian Volunteer Corps / Handout)

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