Celebrating the inaugural Saudi Green Initiative Day

Celebrating the inaugural Saudi Green Initiative Day

The Saudi Green Initiative Day reflects Saudi Arabia’s vision and dedication to fostering a culture of sustainability (SPA)
The Saudi Green Initiative Day reflects Saudi Arabia’s vision and dedication to fostering a culture of sustainability (SPA)
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The launch of Saudi Green Initiative Day marks a pivotal moment in Saudi Arabia’s journey toward environmental sustainability and represents a significant step forward in the Kingdom’s commitment to combating climate change. This special day underscores the importance of concerted efforts in environmental conservation and aligns with Saudi Vision 2030 to create a sustainable future for the nation’s citizens and the world.

The day reflects Saudi Arabia’s vision and dedication to fostering a culture of sustainability across the nation. It is a vital platform to highlight and celebrate the Kingdom’s significant strides in environmental protection and green innovation.

Since Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman launched the Saudi Green Initiative on March 27, 2021, Saudi Arabia has embarked on an ambitious journey to mitigate the impacts of climate change. There have already been remarkable achievements, including incredible progress in afforestation and urban greening efforts.

Over 94,000 hectares of degraded land have been rehabilitated, and 43 million trees planted, paving the way toward the ultimate goal of 10 billion trees.

Riyadh is at the forefront of these initiatives with the Green Riyadh project, which aims to plant 7.5 million trees by 2030, thereby increasing the city’s green space to 9 percent of its total area. This initiative includes the development of King Salman Park, envisioned to be the world’s largest urban park.

Saudi Arabia is making substantial advancements in its renewable energy sector, with an ambitious plan to enhance its capacity and transition toward a more sustainable energy mix. The country’s National Renewable Energy Program is guiding the development of various projects to boost its renewable electricity generation. By 2024, the Kingdom aims to generate 15.1 terawatt-hours of renewable electricity, significantly increasing its renewable output from less than 730 gigawatt-hours in 2020, which constituted only 0.2 percent of the country’s electricity production at the time​​.

The launch of Saudi Green Initiative Day marks a pivotal moment in Saudi Arabia’s journey toward environmental sustainability and represents a significant step forward in the Kingdom’s commitment to combating climate change.

Dr. Omar Al-Attas

To achieve these targets, Saudi Arabia is focusing on large-scale solar projects and wind energy, with 13 projects totaling a capacity of 4,870 megawatts, including 4,470 MW from solar and 400 MW from wind energy​​. This move is part of the broader Saudi Green Initiative, which aims to balance the country’s energy mix by increasing the share of renewable energy to 50 percent by 2030 while reducing its dependence on oil and gas​​.

Supporting this goal is the company I work for, Red Sea Global, which is spearheading the development of the world’s largest off-grid tourism destination. In collaboration with ACWA Power, we have installed 760,000 solar panels across five solar farms at The Red Sea to power its entire first phase, including 16 resorts, a staff town, and an international airport, all running only on solar energy. This approach slashes an estimated 600,000 tonnes of carbon emissions each year.

We are following suit a bit further north at AMAALA, where we signed a 25-year concession agreement with EDF and Masdar to establish a multi-utilities infrastructure facility powered solely by solar energy. This facility aims to produce up to 410,000 megawatt-hours annually, capable of supplying power to 10,000 households for a year while cutting nearly half a million tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions annually.

Besides our renewable energy ambitions, we are only developing 1 percent of The Red Sea destination area, 25 percent of the islands, and are establishing the largest marine-protected area in the region. This supports the SGI’s commitment to protect 30 percent of its terrestrial and marine area by 2030. We have set a target to achieve a 30 percent net conservation benefit by 2040. This involves growing millions of plants, trees, mangroves, seagrasses, and corals. This ambition is amplified across the Kingdom by the SGI and its initiatives with 66,000 square kilometers of land and sea already protected.

As we observe the inaugural SGI Day and recognize the huge progress of entities across the country toward environmental conservation, it becomes clear that the path to a sustainable future is a collective journey. Policymakers, business leaders, and everyone in our society all have roles. This involves simple yet impactful actions such as reducing waste, conserving water and energy, and supporting local and sustainable products.

In our tourism business, trends suggest that travelers are increasingly seeking holiday destinations or hotels that have recognized green credentials. The choices consumers make can significantly influence the market, encouraging more businesses to adopt sustainable practices. By supporting companies, destinations, or hotels that prioritize environmental sustainability, the public can directly promote a greener tourism industry.

Through collective action and sustained commitment, we can ensure the preservation of our planet for future generations to enjoy.

  • Dr. Omar Al-Attas is the group head of Environmental Protection and Regeneration for Red Sea Global where he provides technical and managerial expertise, and oversees the operations and execution of key core services and support functions.
Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not necessarily reflect Arab News' point of view

’No longer a shadow war’: Iran says attack on Israel marks strategic shift

’No longer a shadow war’: Iran says attack on Israel marks strategic shift
Updated 16 April 2024

’No longer a shadow war’: Iran says attack on Israel marks strategic shift

’No longer a shadow war’: Iran says attack on Israel marks strategic shift
  • Israel’s military said it intercepted 99 percent of the aerial threats with the help of the United States and other allies, and that the overnight attack caused only minor damage
  • Israel has killed at least 33,797 Palestinians in Gaza, mostly women and children, according to the health ministry in the Hamas-run territory

TEHRAN: Iran’s missile and drone barrage against Israel was the first act of a tough new strategy, Tehran says, warning arch foe Israel that any future attack will spark “a direct and punishing response.”
This spells a dramatic shift from past years in which the Islamic republic and Israel have fought a shadow war of proxy fights and covert operations across the Middle East and sometimes further afield.
Iran from late Saturday launched hundreds of drones and missiles, including from its own territory, directly at Israel, to retaliate for a deadly April 1 strike on Iran’s consulate in Damascus.
Israel’s military said it intercepted 99 percent of the aerial threats with the help of the United States and other allies, and that the overnight attack caused only minor damage.
Iran said it had dealt “heavy blows” to Israel and hailed the operation as “successful.”
“Iran’s victorious... operation means that the era of strategic patience is over,” the Iranian president’s political deputy, Mohammad Jamshidi wrote on X.
“Now the equation has changed. Targeting Iranian personnel and assets by the regime will be met with a direct and punishing response.”
President Ebrahim Raisi said the operation had “opened a new page” and “taught the Zionist enemy (Israel) a lesson.”
Iran said it acted in self-defense after the Damascus strike levelled the consular annexe of its embassy and killed seven members of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), including two generals.
Western governments denounced Iran’s retaliation as “destabilising the region.”
Iran, however, insisted the attack was “limited” and urged Western nations to “appreciate (its) restraint” toward Israel, especially since the outbreak of the Gaza war on October 7.
Regional tensions have soared amid the Israel-Hamas war which has drawn in Iran-backed armed groups in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Yemen.
Several IRGC members, including senior commanders, have been killed in recent months in strikes in Syria which Iran has also blamed on Israel.

Since the 1979 Islamic revolution, Iran has frequently called for Israel’s destruction and made support for the Palestinian cause a centerpiece of its foreign policy.
But it had refrained from directly striking Israel until Saturday, an attack on a scale which appeared to catch many in the international community by surprise.
For decades, Iran relied on a network of allied groups to exert its influence in the region and to deter Israel and the United States, according to experts.
A 2020 report by the Washington Institute said that Tehran had adopted a policy of “strategic patience,” which had “served it well since the inception of the Islamic republic in 1979.”
Former moderate president Hassan Rouhani was a staunch defender of the strategy, especially following Washington’s 2018 withdrawal from a landmark nuclear deal, advocating for Tehran not to take immediate countermeasures and taking a longer view.
Even after the 2020 US killing of Qasem Soleimani, an IRGC commander revered in Iran, Tehran gave prior warning to Washington, US sources said, before it launched missiles against two American bases in Iraq, and no soldiers were killed in the attack.
After Saturday’s attack on Israel, Guards chief Hossein Salami also said Iran was “creating a new equation.”
“Should the Zionist regime attack our interests, our assets, our personnel and citizens at any point, we will counterattack it from the Islamic Republic of Iran,” he was quoted as saying by local media.
The attack was also hailed as a “historic” success by Iranian media, with the government-run newspaper Iran saying the offensive “has created a new power equation in the region.”
The ultra-conservative daily Javan said the attack was “an experience Iran needed, to know how to act in future battles” and that it would make Israel “think long before (committing) any crime” against Tehran.
The reformist Ham Mihan newspaper said the attack “ended the status quo and broke the rules of the conflict that pitted the two sides against each other for 20 years and pushed the situation into another phase.”
“This is no longer a shadow war,” it said.


Lebanese officials charge Mossad killed Hamas financier

Mohammed Srour. (X/@HasanDorr)
Mohammed Srour. (X/@HasanDorr)
Updated 16 April 2024

Lebanese officials charge Mossad killed Hamas financier

Mohammed Srour. (X/@HasanDorr)
  • A Lebanese judicial official and a security source told AFP that Mossad likely masterminded Sarur’s killing, both speaking on condition of anonymity as they were not authorized to speak to the press

BEIRUT: A Lebanese minister and two senior officials said preliminary findings suggest Israel’s Mossad spy agency was behind the killing of a US-sanctioned Lebanese man accused of sending Iranian money to Hamas.
The body of Mohammad Sarur, 57, was found riddled with bullets in a villa in the Lebanese mountain town of Beit Mery last Tuesday.
Interior Minister Bassam Mawlawi told Al-Jadeed TV late Sunday that, “according to the data we have so far, (the killing) was carried out by intelligence services.”
Asked whether he was referring to Mossad, Mawlawi confirmed.
AFP has requested comment from Israeli government officials but has received no response so far.
The US Treasury said in August 2019 that it had sanctioned Sarur for funnelling “tens of millions of dollars” from Iran’s Revolutionary Guards “to Hamas for terrorist attacks originating from the Gaza Strip,” through Lebanon’s Hamas-allied Hezbollah.
The Lebanese group has been exchanging near daily cross-border fire with the Israeli military since October 7 when Hamas launched its unprecedented attack on Israel, triggering the war in Gaza.
A Lebanese judicial official and a security source told AFP that Mossad likely masterminded Sarur’s killing, both speaking on condition of anonymity as they were not authorized to speak to the press.
“The preliminary results of the investigation indicate that the Israeli Mossad was behind the assassination,” the security official told AFP.
Initial findings “suggest the Mossad used Lebanese and Syrian agents to lure Sarur to a villa in Beit Mery,” the official said, adding that they had wiped fingerprints from the crime scene and used silenced weapons.
The judicial official also told AFP that preliminary information pointed to Mossad, but that the probe was ongoing, with investigators collecting evidence “especially from communications data.”
The US Treasury said Sarur “served as a middle-man” for money transfers between the (Revolutionary) Guards and Hamas “and worked with Hezbollah operatives to ensure funds were provided” to Hamas’s armed wing.
Sarur “has an extensive history working at Hezbollah’s sanctioned bank, Bayt Al-Mal,” the Treasury said.
In January 2019, the Lebanese army said it had arrested a suspected Mossad agent over a failed bid to assassinate a Hamas official in the country’s south a year earlier.
In the 1970s, Israel launched a targeted assassination campaign against Palestinian militants in retaliation for the killing of 11 Israelis at the 1972 Munich Olympics, leaving several militants dead in Beirut.


Israeli military pledges response to Iran attack amid calls for restraint

Israeli military pledges response to Iran attack amid calls for restraint
Updated 16 April 2024

Israeli military pledges response to Iran attack amid calls for restraint

Israeli military pledges response to Iran attack amid calls for restraint
  • Iran mounted its attack after the April 1 killing in Damascus of seven Iranian Revolutionary Guards officers, including two senior commanders
  • Israel has killed at least 33,797 Palestinians in Gaza, mostly women and children, according to the health ministry in the Hamas-run territory

JERUSALEM: Israel’s military chief said on Monday his country would respond to Iran’s weekend missile and drone attack amid calls for restraint by allies anxious to avoid an escalation of conflict in the Middle East.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu summoned his war cabinet for the second time in less than 24 hours to weigh how to react to Iran’s first-ever direct attack on Israel, a government source said.
Israel’s military Chief of Staff Herzi Halevi said the country would respond, but provided no details.
“This launch of so many missiles, cruise missiles, and drones into Israeli territory will be met with a response,” he said at the Nevatim Airbase in southern Israel, which sustained some damage in Saturday night’s attack.

The head of the military, Lieutenant General Herzi Halevi (C), attending early on April 14, 2024 a meeting at the Israeli Air Force Operations Center in Kirya in Tel Aviv with the commanding officers of the Israeli Air Force, the operations directorate and the intelligence directorate. (AFP)

Iran’s attack — launched in retaliation for a suspected Israeli airstrike on its embassy compound in Damascus on April 1 — has increased fears of open warfare between Israel and Iran and heightened concerns that violence rooted in the Gaza war is spreading further in the region.
Wary of the dangers, President Joe Biden told Netanyahu the United States will not take part in any Israeli counter-offensive against Iran, officials said on Sunday.
Since the start of the war in Gaza on Oct. 7, clashes have erupted between Israel and Iran-aligned groups in Lebanon, Syria, Yemen and Iraq. Israel said four of its soldiers were wounded hundreds of meters inside Lebanese territory overnight.
It appeared to be the first such known incident since the Gaza war erupted, although there have been months of exchanges of fire between Israel and Lebanon’s armed group Hezbollah.
“We’re on the edge of the cliff and we have to move away from it,” Josep Borrell, the European Union’s foreign affairs chief, told Spanish radio station Onda Cero. “We have to step on the brakes and reverse gear.”
French President Emmanuel Macron, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz and British Foreign Secretary David Cameron made similar appeals. Washington and United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres have also issued calls for restraint.
White House national security spokesman John Kirby declined on Monday to say during a briefing whether Biden urged Netanyahu in talks on Saturday night to exercise restraint in responding to the attack.
“We don’t want to see a war with Iran. We don’t want to see a regional conflict,” said Kirby, adding that it was up to Israel to decide “whether and how they’ll respond.”
Countries including France, Belgium and Germany summoned the Iranian ambassadors. The French foreign ministry said France was working with its partners to de-escalate the situation.
Russia has refrained from criticizing its ally Iran in public over the strikes but expressed concern about the risk of escalation on Monday and also called for restraint.
“Further escalation is in no one’s interests,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said.

Iran mounted its attack after the April 1 killing in Damascus of seven Iranian Revolutionary Guards officers, including two senior commanders. Israel neither confirmed nor denied carrying out the attack.
Iran’s retaliatory attack, involving more than 300 missiles and drones, caused modest damage in Israel and wounded a 7-year-old girl. Most were shot down by Israel’s Iron Dome defense system and with help from the US, Britain, France and Jordan.
In Gaza itself, where more than 33,000 Palestinians have been killed in the Israeli offensive according to Gaza health ministry figures, Iran’s action has drawn applause.
Israel began its campaign against Hamas after the Palestinian militant group attacked Israel on Oct. 7, killing 1,200 people and taking 253 hostages by Israeli tallies.

In Washington, Biden reiterated US commitment to Israel’s security ahead of a meeting with Iraqi Prime Minister Mohammed Shia Al-Sudani.
Sudani, speaking alongside Biden, said their views may be divergent about what is happening in the region but they wanted to stop the conflict from expanding.
British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak said the Group of Seven major democracies were working on a package of coordinated measures against Iran.
“I spoke to my fellow G7 leaders, we are united in our condemnation of this attack,” Sunak said in parliament.
Italy, which holds the rotating presidency of the G7, said it was open to new sanctions against individuals engaged against Israel.
In an interview with Reuters, Italian Foreign Minister Antonio Tajani said new sanctions would need the backing of all the G7. He suggested any new measures would be focused on individuals rather than whole nations.
“If we need to have more sanctions for people clearly engaged against Israel, supporting for example terrorism, supporting Hamas, it is possible to do it,” Tajani said.
Iran’s attack has caused travel disruption, with at least a dozen airlines canceling or rerouting flights, and Europe’s aviation regulator reaffirming advice to airlines to use caution in Israeli and Iranian airspace.
Iraqi Airways announced a resumption of flights between Iraq and Iran on Tuesday.
Israel remained on high alert, but authorities lifted some emergency measures that had included a ban on some school activities and caps on large gatherings.
Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian said Tehran had informed the United States that the attack on Israel would be limited and for self-defense, and that regional neighbors had been informed of the planned strikes 72 hours in advance.
Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Nasser Kanaani said on Monday, however, that no pre-arranged agreement was made with any country prior to the weekend attack.
Kirby said that Iran did not warn the United States in advance of the attack’s timeframe or targets, calling reports that Tehran had done so “categorically false.”


Boeing says testing of 787 proves aircraft is safe

Boeing says testing of 787 proves aircraft is safe
Updated 16 April 2024

Boeing says testing of 787 proves aircraft is safe

Boeing says testing of 787 proves aircraft is safe
  • While Boeing maintains that around 99 percent of the gaps conform to the .005 inch standard, a small percentage exceeds it

NEW YORK: Boeing defended its safety practices Monday, touting aircraft testing protocols as it girds for a tough congressional hearing featuring critics of the embattled aviation giant.
“Boeing is confident in the safety and durability of the 787 and 777,” the company said in a powerpoint presentation accompanying a media briefing with two senior engineers, who summarized exhaustive testing procedures to refute whistleblower allegations that some 1,400 Boeing planes suffer from significant safety issues.
Wednesday’s Senate hearing is scheduled to include testimony from Boeing engineer Sam Salehpour, who went public last week with sweeping charges alleging Boeing’s safety practices are deficient and that the company retaliated against him for speaking out.
The hearing, titled Examining Boeing’s Broken Safety Culture: Firsthand Accounts, comes as regulators and politicians escalate scrutiny of Boeing in the wake of a near-disastrous January 5 Alaska Airlines flight on a 737 MAX that made an emergency landing after a panel of the fuselage blew out in mid-flight.
Salehpour’s charges include allegations that the 787 Dreamliner contains gaps between parts well above company standards, a dynamic that could “ultimately cause a premature fatigue failure without any warning,” creating unsafe conditions “with potentially catastrophic accidents,” according to an official complaint to the Federal Aviation Administration released by Salehpour’s attorneys.
Steve Chisholm, chief engineer for Boeing Mechanical and Structural Engineering, told reporters gathered at a Charleston, South Carolina factory and on a webcast, that “there was zero fatigue” found in testing.
“We were not surprised by the lack of fatigue findings,” said Chisholm, who noted that the composite materials behind the 787 were picked because they do not fatigue or corrode like traditional metals.
Described by his attorneys as a veteran quality engineer at Boeing, Salehpour slammed Boeing for a series of “shortcuts” that have “allowed potentially defective parts and installations in 787 fleets,” according to the FAA complaint.
To compensate for gaps between parts beyond the .005 inch standard set by Boeing, Salehpour said Boeing has employed force during assembly of 165 times the recommended level of 10 pounds.
After Salehpour’s complaint last week, Boeing released a lengthy rebuttal insisting it is “fully confident” in the aircraft and noting that regulators with the FAA signed off on Boeing’s processes when the company addressed the gap issue in 2022.
Company engineers pointed to testing for plane fatigue undertaken between 2010 and 2015 involving 165,000 cycles, or simulations of 165,000 flights.
In this process, a 787 was placed in a test rig and subjected to pressurization meant for a time period more than three times as long as the aircraft’s expected 787 lifespan of 44,000 cycles.
Company employees raised concerns about gaps and other aspects of the 787 in the 2020-2022 time period.
With 787 deliveries suspended during large stretches of this span, the company removed thousands of fasteners on some 120 planes in inventory and conducted rework on eight planes, company officials said.
While Boeing maintains that around 99 percent of the gaps conform to the .005 inch standard, a small percentage exceeds it.
However, testing has shown no sign of fatigue, said Chisholm, who also described the elevated force during manufacturing as a non-issue.
“We’re talking about 150 pounds on structure that’s meant to carry many thousands of pounds of load. This is not a large load,” Chisholm said. “It’s acceptable.”

Russian soldiers who quit Putin’s war get no hero’s welcome abroad as asylum claims surge

A Russian officer who goes by Yevgeny speaks during an interview at his apartment in Astana, Kazakhstan, in late 2023. (AP)
A Russian officer who goes by Yevgeny speaks during an interview at his apartment in Astana, Kazakhstan, in late 2023. (AP)
Updated 16 April 2024

Russian soldiers who quit Putin’s war get no hero’s welcome abroad as asylum claims surge

A Russian officer who goes by Yevgeny speaks during an interview at his apartment in Astana, Kazakhstan, in late 2023. (AP)
  • Independent Russian media outlet Mediazona has documented more than 7,300 cases in Russian courts against AWOL soldiers since September 2022; cases of desertion, the harshest charge, leapt sixfold last year

ASTANA, Kazakhstan: If the choice was death or a bullet to the leg, Yevgeny would take the bullet. A decorated hero of Russia’s war in Ukraine, Yevgeny told his friend and fellow soldier to please aim carefully and avoid bone. The tourniquets were ready.
The pain that followed was the price Yevgeny paid for a new chance at life. Like thousands of other Russian soldiers, he deserted the army.
“I joke that I gave birth to myself,” he said. “When a woman gives birth to a child, she experiences very intense pain and gives new life. I gave myself life after going through very intense pain.”
Yevgeny made it out of the trenches. But the new life he found is not what he had hoped for.
The Associated Press spoke with five officers and one soldier who deserted the Russian military. All have criminal cases against them in Russia, where they face 10 years or more in prison. Each is waiting for a welcome from the West that has never arrived. Instead, all but one live in hiding.
For Western nations grappling with Russia’s vast and growing diaspora, Russian soldiers present particular concern: Are they spies? War criminals? Or heroes?
Overall asylum claims from Russian citizens have surged since the full-scale invasion, but few are winning protection. Policymakers remain divided over whether to consider Russians in exile as potential assets or risks to national security.
Andrius Kubilius, a former prime minister of Lithuania now serving in the European Parliament, argues that cultivating Russians who oppose Vladimir Putin is in the strategic self-interest of the West. Fewer Russian soldiers at the front, he added, means a weaker army.
“Not to believe in Russian democracy is a mistake,” Kubilius said. “To say that all Russians are guilty is a mistake.”
All but one of the soldiers spoke with AP on condition of anonymity, fearing deportation and persecution of themselves and their families. The AP reviewed legal documents, including criminal case files, Russian public records and military identification papers, as well as photos and videos to verify their stories, but it was impossible to independently corroborate every detail.
Independent Russian media outlet Mediazona has documented more than 7,300 cases in Russian courts against AWOL soldiers since September 2022; cases of desertion, the harshest charge, leapt sixfold last year.
Record numbers of people seeking to desert – more than 500 in the first two months of this year – are contacting Idite Lesom, or “Get Lost,” a group run by Russian activists in the Republic of Georgia. Last spring, just 3 percent of requests for help came from soldiers seeking to leave; in January, more than a third did, according to the group’s head, Grigory Sverdlin. The numbers of known deserters may be small compared to Russia’s overall troop strength, but they are an indicator of morale.
“Obviously, Russian propaganda is trying to sell us a story that all Russia supports Putin and his war,” Sverdlin said. “But that’s not true.”
The question now is, where can they go?
German officials have said that Russians fleeing military service can seek protection, and a French court last summer ruled that Russians who refuse to fight can claim refugee status. In practice, however, it’s proven difficult for deserters, most of whom have passports that only allow travel within a handful of former Soviet states, to get asylum, lawyers, activists and deserters say.
Fewer than 300 Russians got refugee status in the US in fiscal year 2022. Customs and Border Patrol officials encountered more than 57,000 Russians at US borders in fiscal year 2023, up from around 13,000 in fiscal year 2021.
In France, asylum requests rose more than 50 percent between 2022 and 2023, to a total of around 3,400 people, according to the French office that handles the requests. And last year, Germany got 7,663 first-time asylum applications from Russian citizens, up from 2,851 in 2022, Germany’s Interior Ministry told AP in an email. None of the data specifies how many were soldiers.
As they count the days until their legal right to stay in Kazakhstan ends, Yevgeny – and the others – have watched other deserters get seized by Russian forces in Armenia, deported from Kazakhstan and turn up dead, riddled with bullets, in Spain.
“There is no mechanism for Russians who do not want to fight, deserters, to get to a safe place,” Yevgeny said. He urges Western policymakers to reconsider. “After all, it’s much cheaper economically to allow a person into your country — a healthy young man who can work — than to supply Ukraine with weapons.”
Sitting in his spartan room in Astana, Kazakhstan, Yevgeny rummaged through a cardboard box that holds the things he thought to save.
“It’s like a woman’s handbag, there’s so much stuff,” he muttered, poking around real and fake passports, a letter with hearts on it, blister packs of pills.
He can’t find his military medals. He has the certificates, though, commemorating his service in Syria and Ukraine.
Yevgeny seems suddenly ashamed. “I don’t care about them,” he said, shoving everything back in the box.
The son of postal workers, Yevgeny went to military school mostly because it was free. He did 41 parachute jumps, and learned to ride horses, dive, shoot and handle explosives. The cost of his education would come after graduation: five years of mandatory military service.
The night of Feb. 23, 2022, Yevgeny and his unit barely slept. Their tanks, hulking and dark, cast long shadows on a thin layer of snow beside the railroad tracks that would carry them toward Ukraine. Yevgeny was too drunk with fatigue to think much about what would happen next.
On Yevgeny’s second day at war, an officer leaned against his machine gun and shot off his own finger, he said. Later, a guy fell asleep under a military vehicle and died when it drove over him. People got lost and never came back.
In the chaos, around 10 men in his unit were accidentally killed with guns or grenades. One soldier shot another square in the chest. What were they doing, Yevgeny wondered, testing their bulletproof vests? None of it made sense in a world where life mattered. But Yevgeny wasn’t in that world anymore.
The deeper Yevgeny moved into Ukraine, the uglier things got.
“We didn’t want to kill anyone, but we also wanted to live,” explained Yevgeny, a senior lieutenant who oversaw a platoon of around 15 men. “The locals would come in civilian cars and shoot at our military. What would you do?”
He said that Ukrainian prisoners of war were executed because the Russians couldn’t get them back to Russia and didn’t want to build detention centers.
“Special people were chosen for this, because a lot of others refused,” he said. “People with a special, so to speak, psyche were appointed executioners.”
There are things Yevgeny can’t forget: A 14-year-old Ukrainian boy who seemed to be making Molotov cocktails and was executed. A 24-year-old Ukrainian woman caught with compromising information on her phone raped by two Russian soldiers.
Yevgeny was within breathing distance of Kyiv when Moscow ordered a retreat. In a single day in April 2022, around seventy people from his brigade died in an ambush, he said. The Ukrainian military released a video of the encounter with the retreating column.
Pop, pop, pop go the fireballs. Little flags bob above the tanks, giving it the feel of a video game. Shells crash a bit off to the left. Then, a hit. The video cuts to a magnified image of a Russian tank pluming black smoke, two lifeless bodies curled beside it.
“Very cool,” wrote someone in the comments.
“The best sight in my life is to see how the Russians die,” wrote another.
Yevgeny was in that column. He knows men who are dying in those balls of fire. His face is flat. He doesn’t want to see it again.
“Many of my friends have died. And these were really good guys who didn’t want to fight,” he said. “But there was no way out for them.”
He is crying.
If he could, Yevgeny would go back to 2013, the year he entered military school. He would stand sentinel at the gates of his school and tell all the boys go home, stay away, this place is not what it seems.
He wants them to understand three words: “You will die.”
It took Yevgeny less than three months at war to decide to get himself shot in the leg.
“You can only leave wounded or dead,” Yevgeny explained. “No one wants to leave dead.”
He made a pact with three other soldiers. They called it their Plan B. Yevgeny would take the first bullet, then the comms guy, then the sniper. The machine gunner said he didn’t want to leave Ukraine without his brother, who was also fighting, but he’d stand by their story.
One chill May morning, as they trudged through even columns of pine trees on their way to retrieve a drone that had landed in Ukrainian territory, Yevgeny and his friends decided it was time for Plan B. They’d already lost one man in that area and now felt like they were on a suicide mission.
When the sniper shot Yevgeny, the pain was like a strong man hammering a 9 mm metal bar into his flesh. Then the comms guy took a bullet to his thigh. After seeing the two of them crumple and scowl, the third man chickened out.
Blood kept gushing, despite the tourniquet, and Yevgeny was shocked to discover he couldn’t walk. His friends dragged him 300 meters back through the woods. He was given sweet tea and evacuated that same evening.
Yevgeny spent months in rehabilitation and figured he could ride out his injury until his contract expired in June 2023. But after Putin’s announcement of partial mobilization in September 2022, it no longer mattered what his contract said. Soldiers like him were now obliged to serve until the end of the war.
He knew he had to leave. He made it to Kazakhstan in early 2023, with the help of Idite Lesom. Russian authorities filed a criminal case against him. His relatives back in Russia were questioned, his apartment there searched.
Since then, Yevgeny has been doing his best to disappear. He found a place in Astana in an apartment that stank of cat. They were four men with only three cups, three spoons and three chairs to go around. They boiled water with an electric coil in a glass jar because no one wanted to splurge for a kettle.
He worked for a few weeks skittering around Astana on an old motorcycle delivering food. But his paychecks never arrived, possibly because his SIM card and bank account were in different people’s names.
He doesn’t know what he’ll do when his savings run out. He said he’s applied for asylum in France, Germany and the United States – obviously the best place to hide from Russia, he said. He’d like to serve in a UN mission somewhere, but it’s hard for him to conceive of a path from here to there.
He wakes at 10 o’clock, steps out of the shower into another molten, formless day. That night, he will comb his hair and go out to a bar with other deserters, to pass a few sparkling hours as a normal guy.
At the bar, someone remembered that it was the one-year anniversary of Russia’s September 2022 mobilization. Putin drafted 300,000 troops to fight in Ukraine. Tens of thousands of them are now dead.
The table went quiet. Yevgeny searched for a word that meant the opposite of evil so they could drink to it.
In the end, they raised their glasses to virtue, then to peace.
Within hours of Putin’s September 2022 mobilization decree, threatening messages started pinging in on Farhad Ziganshin’s phone. A small man with a big voice, Farhad had abandoned a career in music for the military to please his dad. He’d tried to resign from the armed forces, but the military school where he taught rejected his application, he said.
Panicked, he piled into the family Chevrolet with his mother, sister, dog and aunt and took off for the Kazakh border near midnight. They’d try to make it look like a fun family vacation. The roads were jammed with other Russians fleeing Putin’s draft.
“Hurrah!” shouted Farhad, pumping his fists in the air, as they left Russia.
Farhad landed a job at a burger joint near the border, then followed a friend of a friend to Almaty, Kazakhstan’s largest city, where he’d been promised work as a singer. He ended up working in a banquet hall, sleeping on a vast, golden bed in a newlywed suite and eating as much leftover food as he wanted.
Life was good, but uncertain. Kazakhstan was playing a delicate game, trying to assuage Russia without distancing allies in Europe. In December 2022, Kazakhstan deported a Russian intelligence officer, Mikhail Zhilin, who had deserted. In March 2023, a Russian court sentenced Zhilin to six and a half years in prison.
That same month, Farhad decided to move to Armenia, thinking it was probably safer. But he was blocked from boarding his flight. “Are you on the wanted list?” a border agent asked as he flicked through Farhad’s passport. Farhad went pale. Cold sweat prickled over his body.
He was led to a room for questioning. A man in civilian clothes sat across from him.
“You are my Muslim brother,” he told Farhad. “I’m also against the war. Tell me everything.”
Farhad confessed.
Farhad tried to brace himself for what was to come. He slipped his toothbrush, toothpaste, socks, slippers, snacks and a book – Dostoevsky’s “Crime and Punishment” — into a transparent bag. His cell at the detention center had a metal door with a small window and slot for food, a security camera and a hole in the floor for a toilet.
Farhad stared at the ceiling all night, his panic mounting: How am I going to live here? Will I be beaten or raped? I’d kill myself first.
The morning of his third day in detention, three huge bags arrived for Farhad, packed with food, clothes and cigarettes from local human rights activists. “I lay down and thought that’s the end,” Farhad said. “Kaput.” Why would he need all this stuff if he weren’t in for a long incarceration?
Two hours later, a police officer appeared. “Take your things and get out,” he ordered.
Farhad was free.
Farhad’s lawyer told AP he was released because under the Kazakh criminal code, as well as multilateral agreements with Russia, suspects accused of military crimes can’t be extradited. Farhad was safe, at least for the moment.
“We don’t know what tomorrow will bring,” said his lawyer, Artur Alkhastov, who works with the Kazakhstan International Bureau for Human Rights and Rule of Law in Astana. “In Kazakhstan, politics is higher than the law. . . Everything can change.”
In July, independent Russia media reported that France had rejected Farhad’s application for asylum. What actually happened was that Farhad’s application for a travel permit to France to apply for asylum had been denied, Alkhastov said.
Without an international passport, Farhad was stuck in Kazakhstan. Moreover, the publicity raised fears that Russian authorities would take fresh interest in his case. Farhad moved from Almaty to Astana, the capital, to lower his profile.
“It’s not safe to stay in Kazakhstan,” he said. “I just try to lead a normal life, without violating the laws of Kazakhstan, without being too visible, without appearing anywhere. We have a proverb: Be quieter than water and lower than grass.”
He changes his SIM card every few months, doesn’t live at his registered address and avoids employers who ask too many questions. After six weeks, he ran out of money and moved in with another Russian deserter, Yevgeny. His bed was a pile of coats and sweaters on the floor. It was impossible to sleep. His back was killing him.
He thought of the life he’d left behind in Russia. “In Kazan, I had a completely different life. I had my own apartment, I had a job there, I earned money, I had staff under my command,” he said. “Here I am living sleeping on coats, eating I don’t know what. And without any money in my pocket. It’s very depressing,” Online, people call him a coward and traitor and say he should be killed.
Farhad got a job at a real estate startup that didn’t ask for documents. Every morning, he sang Whitney Houston’s “I Have Nothing” to his co-workers.
After work, Farhad liked to walk around Astana, singing deep slow songs to himself to fill the darkening hours. He dreamed of starting a family but couldn’t afford to take a woman out to the movies. “I can’t fall in love with someone and have someone fall in love with me,” he said. “So I just walk around and sing songs.”
But he wanted to believe that he had made a worthy choice.
“I realized that I didn’t want to serve in this kind of Russian army that destroys cities, kills civilians, and forcibly appropriates foreign land and territory,” he said. “If perhaps watching, listening to my story could bring even one person to reason, I would have made a certain contribution.”
Six months later, the real estate business has collapsed and Farhad is trying to sell flooring instead. He moved into an apartment of his own, but keeps missing rent payments. He’s been warned that his legal right to stay in Kazakhstan is coming to an end. He doesn’t know what to do next.
Sparrow knew from the start that money could mean the difference between life and death. The month before he was born, his father was killed in a gambling dispute over money. His mother raised him, along with his brother and sister, alone, working as a cook in an orphanage in a tiny village.
Later, he moved farther north, to work in a diamond-mining town not far from the Arctic Circle.
The company Sparrow worked for owned more than diamonds. They effectively owned the town, sponsoring its theater, schools, hospital, sports complex and apartment blocks. As it turned out, they also owned Sparrow.
Sparrow finished his shift the afternoon of Friday, Sept. 23, 2022, and was cleaning his Bobcat when his boss came by and told him to report immediately to human resources. They took his passport and military ID and locked them in a safe.
“They said, ‘You’re fired,’” Sparrow recalled. “You have one hour to get to the military recruitment point. If you don’t, you’ll have a criminal case against you.”
Sparrow obeyed. At 6 a.m. the next morning, he and hundreds of other conscripts boarded a heavy old plane bound for a military base in the regional capital.
The thought of war did not cross Sparrow’s mind. All he could think about was his job. Sparrow is delicately composed, with a pale, Asian face, ink-dark eyes and bone-china cheeks. Unable to finish university, he worked hard at laying road. Winters, he endured temperatures so extreme they could crack a backhoe. Why had they fired him?
When he arrived, the military base was chaos. Some 6,000 people were crammed into the barracks, he calculated, and no one was giving orders. Men spilled over each other, hiving off into small groups to drink. He couldn’t find a free bed, so he dropped his bag in a corner and curled up on the floor.
The next day, he found his way to an information stand to figure out who was in charge. But instead of a list of personnel, he found photographs of dead people and an exhortation to kill Ukrainian soldiers. “I saw this photo – what is all this?” he thought. “I’m not going anywhere to kill people – never!”
Sparrow pulled his commander aside to try to find a way to avoid going where he was being sent. He would serve in a different way. He could pay.
The commander was not interested in bribes and told him that if he didn’t fight with the Russian armed forces, he’d end up with a private military company, like Yevgeny Prigozhin’s then-powerful Wagner Group. “You still have just one path,” his commander told him. “Write a refusal, you will go to jail, and we know where you will end up, at PMC Wagner.”
He was 30 years old. He called his mother for help.
Sparrow’s guts couldn’t take it. He ran to the bathroom. He paced in anxious circles. Then ran to the bathroom again. And again.
“What’s wrong with you?” his commander demanded.
“I just have some stomach problems,” Sparrow said.
While the commander was at lunch, Sparrow grabbed his ID, telephone and civilian clothes and headed for a hole in the wall. His mother was waiting on the other side.
The next morning, they boarded the first flight out of town. Forty hours later, Sparrow was in Kazakhstan.
Astana felt fresh and warm. He realized he’d been cold his entire life.
“I am free,” he told himself.
Freedom for Sparrow actually meant a bigger cage.
Two weeks after he fled, Russian authorities opened a criminal case against him. Russian media reported on his case, and Sparrow felt the publicity only increased the size of the target on his back. The charges against him were soon upgraded under a tough new clause in Russia’s criminal code. Now he faces up to 15 years in prison if he gets sent back to Russia.
Security agents interrogated his mother back in Russia. Before he ditched his Russian SIM, he used to get calls from Russian police who said they knew where he was. In October, a man claiming to be a Kazakh policeman started calling him to set up a meeting. He said he’d wait for a summons. None ever came.
Sparrow is afraid of the background checks that come with permanent employment. Instead, he picks up occasional jobs collecting trash or hauling equipment at construction sites.
He was going to bed at 4 a.m. and waking at noon. He couldn’t even get back to Russia to bury his grandfather.
Sparrow’s eyes went red with tears.
“I don’t want anything in life. I have no interest in my own affairs,” he said. “Sometimes I don’t understand myself. I just sit all day on the Internet, on YouTube, and read news, news, news of what’s going on in Ukraine, and that’s it.”
He doesn’t know the status of his own asylum applications. Without a foreign passport, how could he leave Kazakhstan anyway? Every time he dared to believe something good might happen to him, it hasn’t. Why try?
Outside his bare apartment, he could hear the cries of children who are not his, the thwack of a ball from a game he is not playing, the voices of men speaking to friends he does not have.
“There are moments I regret, but I did the right thing,” he said. “I’d rather sit here and suffer and look for something than go there and kill a human being because of some unclear war, which is 100 percent Russia’s fault. I don’t regret it.”
As a child, the boy was not particularly good at school, but he could run. His mother was raising him alone in a village in Western Russia hemmed in by busted coal mines, a place as short on hope as it was on jobs. She called a friend to get her son a spot at a military school. The family wouldn’t have to pay a cent. It looked like a ticket to a better life.
At the military academy, the boy studied engineering to become a radio technician. But his real passion was sports. He wanted to run faster than anyone else.
Now known by the nickname Sportsmaster, he ultimately commanded 30 men, but said he never went into combat. He stayed in service even after he’d fulfilled his five-year contract: He didn’t want to be a burden on his mother and who else was going to pay him to run?
The night Moscow launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine, Sportsmaster jolted awake for no reason at 3 a.m. and spent three sickening hours glued to the television in disbelief. By dawn, all hope had drained from his body. He knew he would be ordered to fight.
“At that moment, I immediately decided that I would not support it in any way, not even lift my little finger to support what had begun,” he said. “I understood that this was a point of no return that would change the lives of the entire country, including mine.”
Sportsmaster said he stopped showing up at his base. In October 2022, his paychecks stopped coming.
His coach, the head of military sports training, told him to report to the base, they’d find something easy for him to do and he’d get paid again. It was a tempting offer from a trusted mentor.
His commanders were waiting for him beneath a huge portrait of a legendary Russian military hero. As he entered the room, they began to speak. It took a moment for the words to become clear: Special Military Operation. Order. Luhansk.
He realized they were reading out his combat orders. He’d been tricked. They told him to sign.
He refused to touch the pen.
The brigade’s chief of staff picked up a book with a Russian flag on the cover, a copy of Russia’s Criminal Code. “You either go to jail or you go there,” he said. “You have only two options.”
Seized by panic, Sportsmaster turned to leave. He had to get out of the building before they locked him inside. His division’s chief of staff grabbed him by the shoulder, but he slipped away and did what he did best: run.
He pounded down three flights of stairs, taking six turns on a zig-zagging staircase, blew past the guards at the door and beelined for a stretch of fence far from any checkpoint. He grabbed onto the black metal bars of the fence and heaved himself over, clearing the speared tips, 2.5 meters tall, without a scratch.
“What I felt was only disgust,” he said.
Idite Lesom gave him step-by-step instructions for how to slip out of Russia. AP is withholding details of the route.
Before he left, he recorded a video, a political message for the keepers of whatever country he might end up in, a plea to convince them of his friendship.
“They wanted to force me to go fight against the free people of Ukraine,” he said to the camera. “Our freedom is taken away from us every day, but Putin wanted to steal it from them in three days.”
And he did what he could to make a grand gesture.
“Putin wanted me to be in a bag,” he said. “But it’s his uniform that will be in a bag.”
He shoved his military uniforms in two black trash bags and threw them in a dumpster.
Near midnight that same day, his mother stood in a pool of streetlight in an empty parking lot, weeping. As her son filmed her from the bus taking him away, she forced a strained, sorrowful smile.
The bus carried Sportsmaster and his girlfriend back to the town where he learned to be a soldier.
“I always thought I was being trained to protect my country and defend it, but it turned out that I was being taught to attack and conquer,” he said.
By that afternoon, they were out of Russia and beaming. He was optimistic. At the least, he would not have to show up to his court hearing in Russia, where he faced criminal charges for not participating in the war.
“The worst thing that could have happened has happened,” he said. “Now only good things are coming.”
Sportsmaster and his girlfriend found a studio apartment in one of the teeming, anonymous buildings slapped up at the edges of Astana.
Six months later, like the other deserters, he’s hiding in plain sight. No SIM card of his own. No clear path to citizenship or asylum. The gnawing peril of a knock at the door.
“There are Russian agents here who try to push Kazakhstan under Russia’s wing,” he said. “I can’t say it’s as safe here as I would like because where the wind blows, Kazakhstan will turn.”
He doesn’t have an international passport and if he tried to cross the border, he’d likely be arrested because of the criminal case against him in Russia.
While he waits for the wind to turn in his favor, Sportsmaster has found work in Astana.
“I am for people to not get stuck,” he said, bursting into an incandescent smile.
When he runs, Sportsmaster eats through 10 kilometers in 40 minutes with animal grace. His breath is even, his heartbeat slow, at ease — if only for a moment — with his place in the world.
He wants people to understand that there are Russians with dignity.
“Something new is starting,” he said. “I will not let anyone decide my destiny for me.”