Just days before Syria talks start in Kazakhstan's capital, Astana, former Free Syrian Army (FSA) commander, Mustafa al-Sheikh, visited Moscow and met Russian officials. Sheikh, a former general in the Syrian army, was the highest ranking officer to defect from the Assad regime forces in late 2011 and was head of FSA's supreme military council. Over the weekend, FSA members denounced the visit by Sheikh, saying it was not coordinated with them. "[His visit] caused a lot of anger within the FSA because he took an individual decision and this decision does not represent the FSA," FSA officer Hassan Hamada told Al Jazeera. On January 10, Russia's foreign ministry announced that Sheikh and a "group of Syrian opposition figures" had met Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov to discuss the situation in Syria.
Things are going from bad to worse for Kaspersky Labs, the Russian anti-virus software developer. The Dutch government says it's planning to phase out the use of the software "as a precautionary measure", and is proactively suggesting other companies do the same. Justice Minister Ferdinand Grapperhaus said the move was made to protect against Russia's "offensive cyber programme that targets, among others, the Netherlands and Dutch interests". He also noted that the Moscow-based Kaspersky could be obliged to comply with Russian state interests because of the Russian laws it's subject to. The news follows a federal US government ban on the software, enacted last year and which arguably set in motion similar decisions from other quarters.
Vladimir Putin was not in attendance, but his loyal lieutenants were. On 14 July last year, the Russian prime minister, Dmitry Medvedev, and several members of his cabinet convened in an office building on the outskirts of Moscow. On to the stage stepped a boyish-looking psychologist, Michal Kosinski, who had been flown from the city centre by helicopter to share his research. "There was Lavrov, in the first row," he recalls several months later, referring to Russia's foreign minister. "You know, a guy who starts wars and takes over countries." Kosinski, a 36-year-old assistant professor of organisational behaviour at Stanford University, was flattered that the Russian cabinet would gather to listen to him talk. "Those guys strike me as one of the most competent and well-informed groups," he tells me. Kosinski's "stuff" includes groundbreaking research into technology, mass persuasion and artificial intelligence (AI) – research that inspired the creation of the political consultancy Cambridge Analytica. Five years ago, while a graduate student at Cambridge University, he showed how even benign activity on Facebook could reveal personality traits – a discovery that was later exploited by the data-analytics firm that helped put Donald Trump in the White House.
A Russian-language network of Twitter bots tried to boost claims of voter fraud going into Germany's national elections on Sept. 24. The above account photo, as pointed out by the Digital Forensic Research Lab, is actually a Pakistani actress with some digitally-altered red hair, and the account didn't post much until it was close to election time in Germany. "The activity indicates a high likelihood this is a fake account pushing a message to provoke a reaction from the far right, and, potentially, to call the legitimacy of the election into question," the researchers wrote in a Medium post. But that hashtag got a giant boost going into the weekend. Several experts expected the Russian government might try to degrade Germany's election integrity instead of trying to unseat Chancellor Angela Merkel, a rival of Russian President Vladimir Putin who pushed for anti-Moscow sanctions after Russia annexed Crimea from Ukraine.