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Russia: Is Putin losing the war? The balance of the first phase of the conflict in Ukraine | International

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On February 24, Russia attacked Ukraine in the biggest military offensive witnessed on the European continent since the end of World War II. Russian President Vladimir Putin’s stated goals at the time were to prevent Ukraine from joining NATO, to demilitarize and to “de-Nazify” the neighboring country. It was the start of a war operation that is upturning the world order. A little over a month later, the Kremlin feels that the goals set out for phase one are being fulfilled “successfully.” A new phase is allegedly about to begin, focusing on “liberating” the Donbas region in southeastern Ukraine. But the facts, which include a series of setbacks leading to a significant withdrawal and reorganization of Russian troops, do not support this version of events. What is the balance of war so far?

Russia has been unable to capture Ukraine’s main cities – the capital Kyiv, Kharkiv, Mykolaiv and even the badly battered Mariupol are still holding out. Odessa remains free, and Ukrainian forces are regaining ground in several parts of the country. Russian troops are withdrawing from their positions on the northern front, and most particularly from their positions around Kyiv. Analysts with the Institute for the Study of War (ISW) believe that Russian forces have abandoned their efforts to capture Kharkiv, the second-largest city in Ukraine and the target of an intense offensive since the beginning of the invasion. Russian forces are still shelling the city, but seem to have given up on their attempts to encircle and control it.


Figures provided by Kyiv (March 29);

Moscow and the Pentagon (March 25);

UN (March 24)

Ukrainian military victims

1,179 dead and 1,860 injured

(according to the UN)

6.5 million displaced people

*The human and military losses during a war are usually estimates due to the difficulty of verifying the figures on the ground

Ukrainian military victims

1,179 dead and 1,860 injured

(according to the UN)

Figures provided by Kyiv (March 29);

Moscow and the Pentagon (March 25);

UN (March 24)

6.5 million displaced people

*The human and military losses during a war are usually estimates due to the difficulty of verifying the figures on the ground

The realization of failure on several lines of attack and the attrition of its forces is forcing the Kremlin to reorganize its deployment in Ukraine. There have been tremendous material losses.


*The specialized website Oryx, which is documenting loss of military equipment by Russia and Ukraine based on visual evidence, is offering a count that helps gain insight into the material cost of this conflict. Ukrainian losses are probably undercounted.

*The specialized website Oryx, which is documenting loss of military equipment by Russia and Ukraine based on visual evidence, is offering a count that helps gain insight into the material cost of this conflict. Ukrainian losses are probably undercounted.

“The first phase has been a Russian military failure of colossal proportions, a truly impressive thing. It will be the subject of study at military academies due to the accumulation of mistakes,” says François Heisbourg, a special advisor for France’s Foundation for Strategic Research (FFRS), the leading French center of expertise on international security and defense issues. The core cause, says Heisbourg, is an erroneous political analysis by the Kremlin that led officials to believe there would not be such a strong resistance by Ukrainians, a fact that also led to inadequate military planning.

“It’s been a disaster,” agrees Ruth Deyermond, a scholar at the Department of War Studies at King’s College London who specializes in security in the post-Soviet space. “We are observing great losses, communication and logistical failures, signs of corruption. They are being forced to resort to mercenaries, and they are withdrawing from Kyiv. No doubt Russia is losing the war. We cannot confidently say that Ukraine is winning, but we can clearly say that Russia is losing,” she says.

The following is an analysis of the combination of strategic and tactical factors that have led the warring sides to the point where they are at, in a war with an as yet uncertain outcome that will define an era. “The initial failure is not an indication of what will happen later,” warns Heisbourg. The conflict could be long and something could tip the balance of war again.

Land invasion

A shock force of between 150,000 and 190,000 Russian troops invaded Ukraine, organized into so-called BTG (Battalion Tactical Groups), the key operating unit of the Russian army. These are formations equipped with about 50 armored vehicles, designed to act with a high degree of autonomy and with great firepower. The United States estimates that Russia has deployed around 100 BTGs in Ukraine, which according to the Pentagon represents 75% of the total number of units at the Kremlin’s disposal.


Each BTG is modular and includes several companies with armored vehicles and artillery batteries. This is the most common structure:

1 company of 10 caterpillar-tread vehicles

1 or 2 companies of 10 troop

transport vehicles

Each BMP and BTR vehicle

carries seven soldiers

Approximately

210 soldiers

Taken together, a Battalion Tactical Group can have around 1,000 troops

2 or 3 batteries of 6 Mobile Howitzer

self-propelled artillery systems

1 battery of 6 rocket launchers

MLRS B M-21, BM-27, B17 or TOS-1A

1 or 2 anti-aircraft batteries

Or a mobile battery of surface-to-air

missile system

Support vehicles such as trucks to transport

troops, engineering equipment, radar,

control systems, mortars, etc.

Each BTG is modular and includes several companies with armored vehicles and artillery batteries. This is the most common structure:

1 company of 10 caterpillar-tread vehicles

1 or 2 companies of 10 troop transport vehicles

Each BMP and BTR vehicle carries seven soldiers

Approximately

210 soldiers

Taken together, a Battalion Tactical Group can have around 1,000 troops

2 or 3 batteries of 6 Mobile Howitzer self-propelled artillery systems

1 battery of 6 rocket launchers

MLRS B M-21, BM-27, B17 or TOS-1A

1 or 2 anti-aircraft batteries

Or a mobile battery of surface-to-air missile system

Support vehicles such as trucks to transport troops, engineering

equipment, radar, control systems, mortars, etc.

Each BTG is modular and includes several companies with armored vehicles and artillery batteries. This is the most common structure:

1 company of 10 caterpillar-tread vehicles

1 or 2 companies of 10 troop transport vehicles

Each vehicle carries seven soldiers

Approximately

210 soldiers

Taken together, a Battalion Tactical Group can have around 1,000 troops

2 or 3 batteries of 6 Mobile Howitzer self-propelled

artillery systems

1 battery of 6 rocket launchers

MLRS B M-21, BM-27, B17 or TOS-1A

1 or 2 anti-aircraft batteries

Or a mobile battery of surface-to-air missile system

Support vehicles such as trucks to transport troops, engineering

equipment, radar, control systems, mortars, etc.

But these powerful units have been slowed down by numerous problems, including their own mistakes and the successes of the Ukrainian defense.

In tactical terms, Russia’s decision to advance by road straight towards its main urban targets made troop movements highly predictable and exposed them to ambush. Failures in equipment maintenance and logistics, and an often inadequate infantry protection of the flanks, aggravated their weakness.

This convoy of armored Russian vehicles had logistical problems during its slow advance towards Kyiv, during the last week of February.
This convoy of armored Russian vehicles had logistical problems during its slow advance towards Kyiv, during the last week of February.

Maxar

In operational terms, the Pentagon has also observed failures in the chain of communication, with a growing reliance on unsafe lines. “The use of unencrypted lines has allowed Ukrainian forces to locate and kill several Russian generals,” says Deyermond.

Overall, command and control have shown signs of ineffectiveness in dealing with an operation of a scale not experienced in decades by Russian forces. And a hierarchical structure that rarely delegates to middle management has reduced agility.

The scope of Russian targets has led to troop dispersal on the ground. However, this has not prevented them from achieving clear supremacy on the fronts.

Ukrainian forces have made the most of this situation, striking the Russian columns repeatedly with anti-tank weapons such as Javelins, or from the sky with drones.


Portable anti-tank missile

system, FGM-148 Javelin (US)

Ukraine has received training and military material such as anti-tank missiles and the Bayraktar TB2 combat drone. The Javelin anti-missile system, which is easy to use and has great destructive power, has helped Ukraine stop Russia’s armored convoys.

Turkish combat drone

Bayraktar

The Javelin missile can reach targets 2.5 miles (4 km) away. The projectile takes a vertical trajectory that increases its effectiveness against armored vehicles.

Portable anti-tank missile

system, FGM-148 Javelin (US)

Ukraine has received training and military material such as anti-tank missiles and the Bayraktar TB2 combat drone. The Javelin anti-missile system, which is easy to use and has great destructive power, has helped Ukraine stop Russia’s armored convoys.

Turkish combat drone

Bayraktar

The Javelin missile can reach targets 2.5 miles (4 km) away. The projectile takes a vertical trajectory that increases its effectiveness against armored vehicles.

Portable anti-tank missile

system, FGM-148 Javelin (US)

Ukraine has received training and military material such as anti-tank missiles and the Bayraktar TB2 combat drone. The Javelin anti-missile system, which is easy to use and has great destructive power, has helped Ukraine stop Russia’s armored convoys.

Turkish combat drone

Bayraktar

The Javelin missile can reach targets 2.5 miles (4 km) away. The projectile takes a vertical trajectory that increases its effectiveness against armored vehicles.

Heisbourg underscores three key factors behind Ukraine’s achievements: “A brave combat spirit, weapons delivered by the West, and training by Western countries that has given Ukraine a better organizational ability than the Russians, who are very uncoordinated.”

The desire to defend one’s country and fellow citizens is a motivational element that is hard to beat. And President Zelenskiy has been an inspirational leader.

Weapons supplied by the West, even if they lack sophisticated systems, are proving to be of great use for the type of combat that is taking place in Ukraine.

Besides that, Ukrainian forces are no doubt benefiting from important intelligence and advisory support from the West. Espionage, satellite observation technology and cyberdefense support from Western public agencies and private companies – including Microsoft and Starlink – are all proving to be important factors.

The absence of a large-scale cyberattack has surprised many. “That’s not to say that we haven’t seen cyber in this conflict. We have – and lots of it. We’ve seen sustained intent from Russia to disrupt Ukrainian government and military systems‚” said Sir Jeremy Fleming, Director of Britain’s General Communications Headquarters (GCHQ), in recent statements. But there have been no significant effects.

Ukraine has also benefited from Russia’s inability to achieve air supremacy, a fact that has puzzled many experts. This is fundamentally due to Russia’s failure to strike Ukrainian anti-aircraft defenses, largely because of imprecise information about their location or during strikes. Russia has launched many attacks and caused a lot of destruction, but it has failed to decisively degrade Ukraine’s military abilities.

Missile offensive

From the beginning, Russia has sought to make the most of its ample missile potential. According to a Pentagon tally, by March 31 the country had launched over 1,400 cruise and ballistic missiles.


Where the first 800 missiles that hit Ukraine were launched from:

Where the first 800 missiles that hit Ukraine were launched from:

Launch systems

Russia has a large arsenal of missiles thanks to decades of defense industry development, first under the Soviet Union and later under President Vladimir Putin’s renewed drive. The star of the arsenal is very likely the Iskander-M, which can shoot short-range ballistic missiles. The army has also used Kalibr cruise missiles, and Moscow claims to have deployed a Kinzhal hypersonic missile.


Iskander missile launch vehicle

Russian corvette deployed in the Black Sea with Kalibr cruise missiles

Kinzhal hypersonic missiles can be launched from MiG aircraft or the Tupolev Tu-22M bomber

Russia has used these missiles to bomb cities from afar.

Reach:

up to

373 miles

(600 km)

Reach:

up to

311 miles

(500 km)

Reach:

up to

1,864 miles

(3,000 km)

Kinzhal

hypersonic

missile

The models are

not to scale

Russia has used these missiles to bomb cities from afar.

Iskander missile launch vehicle

Kinzhal hypersonic missiles can be launched from MiG aircraft or the Tupolev Tu-22M bomber

Russian corvette deployed in the Black Sea with Kalibr cruise missiles

Reach:

up to 373 miles

(600 km)

Reach:

up to

311 miles

(500 km)

Reach:

up to

1,864 miles

(3,000 km)

Kinzhal

hypersonic

missile

Russia has used these missiles to bomb cities from afar.

The models are

not to scale

Iskander missile launch vehicle

Russian corvette deployed in the Black Sea with Kalibr cruise missiles

Kinzhal hypersonic missiles can be launched from MiG aircraft or the Tupolev Tu-22M bomber

Reach:

up to 373 miles

(600 km)

Reach:

up to 311 miles

(500 km)

Reach:

up to 1,864 miles

(3,000 km)

Kinzhal

hypersonic

missile

Defending against missile attacks is extremely difficult, and even the world’s most advanced armed forces have limited intercept capabilities. Ukraine has a S-300 anti-missile system designed in Soviet times and developed at a later date.

At first, Russia picked targets that were clearly military in nature, with the goal of undermining its opponent’s operational capabilities. But progressively it has been including civilian targets as well, ranging from broadcasting towers to shopping malls and even hospitals.

The Pentagon believes that Russia is still sitting on a large stash of ballistic and cruise missiles, but that it might be running short of precision-guided missiles, forcing it to use increasingly inaccurate weapons as the conflict drags on.

Russia’s remarkable missile capacity has caused a lot of damage but has failed to undermine Ukrainian resistance, both in terms of military capability and popular resolve.

Air combat

Russia’s inability to neutralize Ukraine’s anti-aircraft defense is conditioning the operability of Russian aviation, which cannot move as it wishes within Ukrainian airspace. This represents a limitation on Russian air raids to protect their advancing ground forces or to strike targets. The Pentagon has estimated that Russia is using 60% of its air force in Ukraine.

Washington believes that Russian aircraft have been going out on approximately 250 to 340 missions a day, but that many of these have not penetrated into Ukrainian territory or only in a limited manner. Ukrainian aircraft, for their part, are flying five to 10 missions a day.

Besides the S-300, which are quite efficient against airplanes, Ukrainian forces are being supplied with significant amounts of portable Stinger missiles, which are dangerous for low-flying aircraft.


Stinger

surface-to-air

missiles (US)

The US and other countries continue to send weapons to Ukraine, such as Stinger missiles which Ukrainian soldiers can use to shoot down helicopters.

Russian fighter bomber

Sukhoi Su-25

With the S-300 anti-missile system, Ukrainian troops try to intercept Russian fighter bombers.

Ukrainian anti-missile

system S-300 (origin: Russia)

Russian fighter bomber

Sukhoi Su-25

The US and other countries continue to send weapons to Ukraine, such as Stinger missiles which Ukrainian soldiers can use to shoot down helicopters.

Stinger

surface-to-air

missiles (US)

Ukrainian anti-missile

system S-300 (origin: Russia)

With the S-300 anti-missile system, Ukrainian troops try to intercept Russian fighter bombers.

Russian fighter bomber

Sukhoi Su-25

The US and other countries continue to send weapons to Ukraine, such as Stinger missiles which Ukrainian soldiers can use to shoot down helicopters.

Stinger

surface-to-air

missiles (US)

With the S-300 anti-missile system, Ukrainian troops try to intercept Russian fighter bombers.

Ukrainian anti-missile

system S-300 (origin: Russia)

Urban warfare

Russia has been unable to capture Ukraine’s major cities, which would have effectively subjugated the country. Wresting control of the cities from an adversary as determined as the Ukrainian defense involves launching ground attacks, which are among the most dangerous kind of action for any army.

Military experts note that urban combat gives the advantage to the defender, who has many opportunities for hiding.

The attacker could also choose to bomb the city intensely. If he is prepared to accept the ignominy of completely gutting the target, this would certainly clear the way forward. If, instead, he manages to encircle the city completely, it could prevent delivery of essential supplies. But until either of those situations comes to pass, if ever, the defense is keeping up the fight and any Russian incursion will mean exposing the latter’s soldiers to attacks.

Conclusion

Conflicts are dynamic. Like Heisbourg notes, the circumstances that have defined the first month and a half of conflict are not necessarily an indication of how things will turn out in the end. Besides that, available information is neither comprehensive nor transparent.

Available data suggests that Russia is inflicting tremendous damage on Ukraine. It has made huge inroads into Ukrainian territory and its potential for dragging out the war is significant. What’s more, it has managed to get the government in Kyiv to openly talk about negotiating a neutral status for Ukraine as part of a potential peace deal.

But Russia has also sustained tremendous losses in a little over a month. The fact that authorities have admitted to 5,000 casualties, including the dead and the injured, is already remarkable in itself, but it means that the reality is probably a lot worse than Moscow is admitting. Material losses have been huge as well. Rebuilding these forces, notes Heisbourg, will prove extremely tricky given the sanctions that Russia’s defense industry has been hit with and the strong dependence of several sectors. This reality will define Russia’s military future beyond the effects of the Ukraine war.

This operation is showing the world the limitations of Russian forces, which were believed to be modernized and world-class level. “But that is not the case,” adds Deyermond.

On the economic front, Russia continues to earn money from its hydrocarbon exports. Following an initial and sudden collapse, the ruble is gaining lost ground. But the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) recently forecast that Russia’s GDP will contract 10% in 2022, while the inflation rate remains above 15%. The brain drain is also cause for concern in Moscow. It is a complex situation for a country trying to keep up the war effort.

Nobody beyond Putin’s closest circle knows what the Kremlin’s original plans and expectations might have been. Judging by public statements, it would appear that the goal of “demilitarizing” Ukraine is nowhere in sight. As for its “de-Nazification,” this is an ambiguous concept, but the general logic of Russia’s rhetoric would indicate that it essentially means a regime change in Kyiv. This does not appear to be imminent, either.

What Ukrainian President Zelenskiy has accepted is to discuss his country’s neutrality and drop his ambition to join NATO. But he is only willing to do so in exchange for guarantees that resemble those included in Article 5 of the NATO Treaty. “In any case, NATO membership was never really in the cards, so achieving this in exchange for so many losses could hardly be considered a positive result for Moscow.” For now, Kyiv is not capitulating to Moscow’s territorial claims, although it is willing to temporarily put the contentious issue of Crimea on hold.

Whatever the actual goals and expectation of the Kremlin, its use of the term “success” to describe the situation has little basis in facts. The elements on view at the moment do not paint a picture of Russian victory.

Russian forces appear to be reorganizing in order to focus their efforts on the eastern Donbas region. This might grant them improved attack capabilities. They will likely attempt to encircle Ukrainian forces in the area, squeezing them between Russian positions in the north and the south. But Deyermond stresses that the initial phase of the operation has led to significant attrition: Russian troop morale is low, and so is the ability to bring in fresh equipment and forces. Ukraine’s spirits, on the other hand, remain high.

Time will tell whether this initial phase of the war is just the beginning of a new case of military defeat by an invading power with superior strength, just like the USSR and the US experienced in Afghanistan.

Credits: Video was selected, verified and edited by

Sources and methodology: The source for military developments on Ukrainian territory was the Washington-based Institute for the Study of War. The map of urban density is based on data provided by worldpop.org while physical maps are based on naturalearthdata.com. The Pentagon is the source of information about the first 800 missiles deployed by Russia, and Globalsecurity.org for the characteristics of Russian BTGs. Information on equipment losses by both sides comes from the specialized website Oryx, whose lists are based on documentary evidence. The segment on urban warfare is based on John Spencer’s The Mini-Manual for the Urban Defender. Information about missiles was taken from the Missile Threat project of the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies.

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Ukraine war: Biden pledges more aid for Ukraine at close of ‘transformative’ NATO summit | Spain

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At the close of a NATO summit in Madrid that world leaders have described as “transformative,” US President Joe Biden announced a new $800 million package of military aid for Ukraine, including air defense systems, artillery, ammunition and counter-battery radar.

The announcement came a day after the US leader pledged to boost America’s defense and deterrence capabilities on the European continent. “The US is doing exactly what I said we would do if Putin invaded, enhance our force posture in Europe,” said Biden. “Putin thought he could break the transatlantic alliance […] but he’s getting exactly what he did not want.”

At the two-day gathering, which brought together around 40 heads of state and government, leaders agreed on long-term support for Ukraine and on a new Strategic Concept, a document that describes how the Alliance will address threats and challenges in its security environment in the coming years.

Both Biden and NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg underscored one of the main achievements of the two-day gathering, getting Turkey to lift its opposition to Sweden and Finland’s request to join the alliance following decades of non-alignment.

Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey's president, during a news conference following the final day of the NATO summit in Madrid.
Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey’s president, during a news conference following the final day of the NATO summit in Madrid.Valeria Mongelli (Bloomberg)

Formal invitations are being extended, but the process is not over and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan cautioned on Thursday that both Nordic countries will have to keep their promises in connection with their stance on Kurdish groups that Turkey considers terrorists. This includes a pledge by Sweden to extradite 73 individuals.

On Tuesday, Stoltenberg had said the goal of the summit was to chart a blueprint for NATO “in a more dangerous and unpredictable world” marked by the Russian invasion of Ukraine, which has sparked a “fundamental shift” in NATO’s approach to defense.

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Zebras, giraffes … and a cycle race through the Maasai Mara | Global development

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In the world of long-distance running, east Africans have long been the dominant force, and soon they may also be setting the pace in the whitest of elite sports: cycling. This month, the Migration Gravel Race (MGR) brought together 100 of the world’s top cyclists in a four-day showdown on the rocky, red dirt roads of Kenya’s Maasai Mara. With a third of the entrants from east Africa, it was a rare opportunity for the region’s riders to show they can rival the best.

“Cycling is a very Eurocentric sport,” says Mikel Delagrange, the prime mover behind the event. “In over 100 years of the world championship, only three athletes outside of Europe have ever won, and they came from the US and Australia.”

For 11 years, Delagrange, a human rights lawyer, worked mostly in central and east Africa, for the international criminal court in The Hague. He quit last year and now works with the UN in Palestine.

“The obstacle for east African riders is that they lack access to international competition,” he says. “You might be the best in your neighbourhood but you won’t progress if you’re only beating people in your neighbourhood.

Two cyclists on a dusty dirt trail through vegetation
Two riders on stage 3, which finished in the wildest section of the race with no access to internet and the sound of hyenas at night. Photograph: saltlakephoto.nl

“But if we send an east African to an international race, we’re spending an unbelievable amount of money on visas because everyone thinks they’re a migrant, then on flights, plus staying in Europe is prohibitively expensive for most.

“After a lot of consultation, we thought: instead of clawing at the door, why don’t we bring international competition here?”

Against a backdrop of acacias and euphorbia candelabra trees, amid the zebras, giraffes, impalas and wildebeest of the savannah, the four-day race takes riders along 650km of rough roads, climbing above 3,000 metres. Each day, before the course is cleared by Maasai motorcycle sweepers, dressed in their traditional red plaid blankets, a helicopter goes ahead to check for elephants and buffalo.

The Migration Gravel Race
There would be no race without the local crew, led by Masai chief Saliton.

“What Mikel is doing is giving east African riders a home-based platform, not a European one,” says Kenyan cyclist David Kinjah. “They get a chance to compete against the best, in their country.”

Organising a travelling band of 100 cyclists in a region that lacks infrastructure is a challenge. All the logistics, from security to cooking to building the campsites, is done with support from local Maasai.

Last year, Delagrange set up the Amani team – eight men and four women from the top cycling clubs in Kenya, Uganda and Rwanda. “Amani has changed my life, but not just mine,” says Suleiman Kangangi, 33, a Kenyan cyclist. “This is a big deal for east African riders. We selected the best for this race, and they know there’s something to aim for.”

Nancy Akinyi, 32, another Kenyan cyclist, says: “It’s not just about bringing these people here to compete, it’s to prepare these young riders for what could be their future if they excel. Thanks to Amani, we can send riders from east Africa and show we can do it. If you go to the world championship, you don’t see black people there.

Jordan Schleck battles through a puddle from earlier rain during the Queen stage, stage 2 of the men’s race.
Jordan Schleck battles through a puddle from earlier rain during the Queen stage, stage 2 of the men’s race.

“Amani is special because now black people can see that we can be pros. It’s unusual to see people from the northern part of Africa – I’m going to say black people – doing so well,” she says.

“It started here in east Africa, but now I get emails from women in Congo, Tanzania and even Lesotho who say they want to join the team.”

Non-African riders, who include big names such as Lachlan Morton from Australia, Italian cyclist Mattia de Marchi and Lael Wilcox from the US, paid €1,250 (£1,075) to enter, some of which goes towards funding the Amani team.

Everyone is racing for fun and glory; there is no prize money.

John Kariuki of team Amani stands on the winner’s stand at the 2022 Migration Gravel Race.
John Kariuki of team Amani wins the 2022 Migration Gravel Race, with Jordan Schleck and Mattia de Marchi. Photograph: saltlakephoto.nl

“The Europeans didn’t expect the African riders would be so tough to beat,” says Kinjah. “When we compete in Europe, everything is different: the food, the language, the roads. This affects your performance.”

The home advantage changes the odds. On the eve of the first stage, Delagrange thanks the non-Africans for coming, then adds: “Just for a change, you’re going to be the people who stand out and don’t speak the language.”

The fast-growing sport of gravel racing, essentially putting mountain bike tyres on high-end €10,000 road bikes, is more open and democratic than road racing. Like a marathon, anyone can line up with the best.

“What you have here – where you can sit around the campfire after a race and chat with people from all walks of life, make new friends and also hammer each other for five hours on the road every day – that doesn’t exist in the majority of races,” says Morton, who finished fifth overall, behind three Amani riders. “It’s an experience that’s so much more fulfilling. I’d come back in a heartbeat.

“In an event like this, the bullshit fades away. It’s like, here’s the start line, here’s the finish, go for it. It doesn’t matter where you’re from, we’re all going to sleep in tents and we’re all going to eat the same food, so let’s get on with it.”

Local Maasai show their support.
Local Maasai show their support. Photograph: Migrasaltlakephoto.nl

Wilcox, who once rode 3,000km from her home in Anchorage, Alaska, to reach the start line of the 4,500km Tour de Canada, and then broke the women’s record by four days, is another fan: “It’s cool that there’s a really good women’s field here. They’ve put a lot of effort into inviting women and making them feel like they belong. It’s good to see.”

Juliet Elliott, a 44-year-old cycling pro, says: “A race like this, where we all race together but there are separate podiums, that’s pretty cool. If I’d had to do road races against guys, I probably wouldn’t have bothered, but gravel is more open. In these long-distance disciplines, women tend to do better.”

Xaverine Nirere (left) and Nancy Akinyi of the Amani women’s team.
From left: Xaverine Nirere and Florence Nakaggwa of team Amani; Violette Neza has a refreshment break. Photograph: saltlakephoto.nl

Delagrange says they had the good luck to be ready with a concrete proposal when the Black Lives Matter movement made some realise that “racial disparity is a thing, and continues to be”. There was some overdue reflection in cycling, he says, and many “were looking for a fig leaf to cover how white the sport is. We acted as a hub for corporations to know where to direct their resources.”

He believes the industry is beginning to understand that it’s not diverse enough to be considered an international sport. “Imagine if running was still just Roger Bannister. We aren’t pushing the limits of human capability. Without allowing the rest of the world to play this game, we still don’t know what can be done on a bike.”

The idea that east African cyclists can hold their own against the best was entirely vindicated. Amani’s John Kariyuki was the overall winner over the four stages. Two of his teammates, Jordan Schleck Ssekanwagi and Kangangi, came third and fourth. Fifteen of the top 20 finishers were Africans.

Xaverine Nirere catches her breath on stage three
Xaverine Nirere catches her breath on stage three

Distance rider Marin de Saint Exupéry, from Switzerland, says it’s the first time he’s raced against Africans. “I can’t keep up with this pace,” he says. “I was really attracted to the idea of this project, and met some of the team when they came to Switzerland last year. We shouldn’t need a project like this, but we do.”

Kinjah, 51, who finished 14th, believes many sporting projects in Africa fail because they have a European mentality and don’t understand the culture. “This project is different because they take the best from several countries,” he says. “They bring unity by putting these good riders in one team. Some of these guys have never been in the Maasai Mara or seen an elephant. Now they are having an adventure in their own country – and racing against the best in the world.”

“The scale is small,” Delagrange admits. “Right now, we have 12 athletes whose lives we’d like to improve through opportunities. We’re trying to make it easier for those outside east Africa to invest in great human beings. Maybe we will have those breakout athletes who will change the face of cycling. You’ve got to start somewhere.

“I think many Europeans still cling to a LiveAid mentality. People saw a bunch of things in the 80s, and they’re, like: OK, that’s what Africa is like. If you always see people in a disempowered position, it will reinforce your subconscious view of them. But when people come and meet athletes who kick their ass, they don’t see disempowered people, they see real competitors.

“Hopefully, after four days, they go home with a different view of what Africa is about.”

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Amado Carrillo Fuentes: Mexico raffles off luxurious narco-mansion | International

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It has been a hideout for crooks, a film set, and the headquarters of a foundation. In late June, a luxurious mansion once owned by Amado Carrillo Fuentes became the top prize in Mexico’s national lottery. The former Juárez cartel boss known as the Lord of the Skies (El Señor de los Cielos) built this US$4.5 million home in Jardines del Pedregal, an exclusive neighborhood south of Mexico City. The two-story residence measures more than 10,000 square feet, and has an indoor pool, expansive gardens, and enough garage space for 30 cars. The enormous home boasts a bar with a wine cellar, nine bedrooms; six Jacuzzis, numerous closets and dressing rooms, a huge kitchen, a steam room, a library, and a life-size playhouse for children. And for the price of a US$10 cachito, as lottery tickets are called in Mexico, some lucky player had a chance to win the opulent mega-mansion.

Lottery administrators put three million numbers up for grabs, but the tepid response from the public meant that multiple numbers had to be picked before one came up a winner. Suspense built as losing numbers came up again and again. “That number isn’t a winner, so we’ll try again. Good luck!” said the announcer 16 times. Almost 25 minutes later, the winning number was picked on the 17th try.

The indoor pool of the narco-mansion.
The indoor pool of the narco-mansion. Presidencia MX

“How would you like a house in Jardines del Pedregal?” tempted the commercials. “I can already picture myself living there!” a woman replies enthusiastically. “Or you could sell it,” suggested the announcer. The property has long been a headache for the Mexican government. It was first auctioned in May 2020 by the “Instituto para Devolver al Pueblo Lo Robado”, a government agency created by Mexican President Andres Manuel López Obrador to liquidate assets seized from criminal organizations and corrupt officials. The auction hoped to raise at least US$2.6 million pesos for the house, but the best offer was US$2.47 million, from a mysterious man in a gray suit who raised his paddle amid cheers from the attendees. “I want US$2.5 million! Who says yes?” asked the auctioneer, as he anxiously counted to three. In the end, no one wanted to pay more. Then, the auction winner never paid up.

Seized in January 1995 from Carrillo two years before his death, the mansion became a white elephant, a prize nobody wanted. The drug kingpin had amassed a fortune by transporting huge quantities of drugs with his fleet of airplanes. Although his main center of operations was in the border city of Ciudad Juárez (Mexico), the Lord of the Skies owned properties all over the country. Wanted by authorities in Argentina, Colombia, the United States, and Mexico, Carrillo underwent several cosmetic surgeries to change his appearance and evade his pursuers. He died during a botched procedure in 1997. A television series about his life has become an international hit on streaming platforms and is getting ready to film its eighth season.

The luxurious kitchen of the house.
The luxurious kitchen of the house. Presidencia MX

The white elephant raffle came about when the Mexican government wearied of the expensive maintenance, which included US$25,000 for security services. Photos of the mansion used to promote the raffle show that Carrillo’s palace has seen better days. “We’re doing this to support the Mexican people and help our neighbors,” said President López when he announced the raffle in early June. “There are a lot of abandoned public assets scattered around various government agencies,” said the president, “and they will go to ruin if not maintained properly.”

The narco-mansion is listed on the internet as the former headquarters of a foundation that trains unemployed and disabled people so they can find work. It was rented in 2003 for the filming of Man on Fire, a movie starring Denzel Washington, who plays a bodyguard trying to rescue a nine-year-old girl (Dakota Fanning), and destroys half of Mexico City in the process. When the movie came out, there were rumors in the press about underground tunnels connecting the property to other nearby houses in the area, but no mention of this was made in the promotional material for the raffle.

The facade of the house, in the Jardines del Pedregal area, south of Mexico City.
The facade of the house, in the Jardines del Pedregal area, south of Mexico City.Presidencia MX

The raffle also included 200 lots of land in Playa Espiritu, a failed tourism development project in Sinaloa (Mexico) that cost more than US$100 million. The value of each lot ranges from US$40,000-US$65,000. “It was a fraud,” admitted President López in October 2021. His lackluster sales pitch included statements like, “It isn’t in a great location,” and “Nobody wants to buy it.” The highest praise the president could muster was, “It has a beach.” The raffle also includes US$2.9 million in cash prizes.

After being seized, borrowed, and auctioned, the mansion that once belonged to the notorious Lord of the Skies will finally have a new owner–winning ticket number 339,357–but the ticketholder’s identity will not be made public.

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