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Facebook is 20 years old today.

On 4 February 2004 Mark Zuckerberg launched ‘thefacebook.com’ from his Harvard dormitory.

Two decades later, many users struggle to remember a time they weren’t scrolling through its news feed – or that of its social media sibling, Instagram.

While allowing us to find long-lost friends and family, and supporting small businesses, its 20-year history has been chequered with controversy – from the Cambridge Analytica scandal and allegations of election interference, to lacking protections against harmful content.

Here we look back at the last 20 years – and what could be in store for the trillion-dollar tech company.

2004

When computer science and psychology student Mark Zuckerberg launched thefacebook.com, it was only for students like him – and not open to the wider public.

It was designed so they could exchange posts, messages, and create a network of ‘friends’.

Its mainstay was the ‘wall’, where users could publish posts or write on others.

Facebook was hot on the heels of its early 2000s rival MySpace and was not monetised so refreshingly free of advertising.

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Tyler (left) and Cameron Winklevoss and their ConnectU co-founder Divya Narendra. Pic: AP
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Tyler (left) and Cameron Winklevoss and their ConnectU co-founder Divya Narendra. Pic: AP

But just a few days after it launched, three of Zuckerberg’s fellow Harvard students accused him of stealing their idea for a similar social network they had created called ConnectU. Twins Tyler and Cameron Winklevoss and Divya Narendra claimed Zuckerberg had helped them with ConnectU, but eventually agreed to settle their legal case in 2008 – in exchange for $65m (£51m), including Facebook shares, and their ConnectU business.

By the end of the year, Facebook already had a million users.

2005

You couldn’t upload photos on Facebook until 2005, when the ability to sub-categorise pictures into albums provided the first platform for the ‘photo dump’.

The inclusion of photos on Facebook also gave birth to the concept of the ‘profile picture’.

The year after the launch, Zuckerberg also decided to drop the ‘the’ and bought the domain name Facebook.com for $200,000 (£170,000) from a company called AboutFace Corporation.

Facebook's login page in 2010. Pic: AP
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Facebook’s login page in 2010. Pic: AP

2006

A year before the first iPhone was released, Facebook launched a bespoke mobile site for the first generation of smartphone users.

On 26 September 2006 Facebook expanded beyond university students for the first time – allowing anyone with an email address over the age of 18 to join.

With the expansion came the news feed, giving users a curated selection of their friends’ posts, and the wider world the concept of ‘scrolling’.

2006 was also the first year Facebook faced major controversy. Zuckerberg was forced to apologise after his Beacon feature, which sent data to third parties to create targeted ads, began showing users’ purchasing history on their profiles without their consent. Eventually people could opt to turn the feature off.

2007

Facebook’s fourth year brought with it several firsts – videos, ads, Marketplace and pages.

Introducing advertising created huge revenue streams and gave businesses a new way of selling themselves online.

Pages also meant companies and other organisations could create mini-professional profiles that were distinct from personal ones.

On a smaller consumer scale, individual users could advertise goods for sale.

Facebook for iPhone. Pic: AP
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Facebook for iPhone. Pic: AP

2008

Facebook launched its own instant messenger ‘chat’ in March 2008, which became a separate app entirely known as ‘messenger’ in 2011.

With the iPhone came a dedicated Facebook app, separate from its mobile site.

A second major data breach saw the dates of birth of more than 80 million users published on the platform.

2009

This was the year of the ‘like’ button.

And to rival Twitter, which had launched in 2006, Facebook also introduced tagging for photos, posts, and comments.

Pic: Reuters
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Pic: Reuters

2010

January 2010 saw Facebook’s first purpose-built data centre open in Oregon.

By the middle of the year the site had reached 500 million users, with ‘groups’ also added for the first time.

In October, The Social Network film was released. Starring Jesse Eisenberg as Zuckerberg, it set out to tell the story of Facebook’s beginnings and the subsequent battle between its founder and the Winklevoss twins. Although it was a huge success in Hollywood, Zuckerberg criticised parts of it for being inaccurate.

Stars of The Social Network film Jesse Eisenberg, Andrew Garfield and Justin Timberlake at its premiere in 2010. Pic: AP
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Stars of The Social Network film Jesse Eisenberg, Andrew Garfield and Justin Timberlake at its premiere in 2010. Pic: AP

2011

In 2011, Facebook began its long and complex relationship with law enforcement.

The US Federal Trade Commission (FTC) sued it for multiple breaches of its privacy policy. These included users’ friends list being public even when they had made them private, and non-consensual sharing of their personal data with advertising companies.

By 2023, the FTC was on its third case against Facebook.

2011 was also the year the much-loved Facebook wall was replaced with a timeline.

2012

In April 2012, Facebook bought Instagram for $1bn (£0.8bn) and in May it was floated on the stock market for the first time.

Zuckerberg said he bought the photo-sharing app because it was a “threat” to Facebook’s future and the IPO was one of the biggest and most anticipated in history, with an estimated share value of $104bn (£82.2bn).

Zuckerberg leaves his New York City hotel on the day of Facebook's IPO. Pic: Reuters
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Zuckerberg leaves his New York City hotel on the day of Facebook’s IPO in 2014. Pic: Reuters

Oculus, a Facebook-owned brand, also produced its first virtual reality headset.

Later that year the platform reached a new milestone of one billion users – a seventh of the world’s population.

2013

In June 2013 a bug saw the email addresses and phone numbers of six million Facebook users accessible online.

It was thought to have been an issue since the year before but was only spotted in 2013.

In terms of features, this year saw users able to edit their posts retrospectively and share stickers as well as emojis.

2014

Two years after the acquisition of Instagram, Facebook bought WhatsApp for 19 times the amount. WhatsApp was created in 2009 for iPhone by a former Yahoo employee.

Today more than half of the world’s internet users have WhatsApp.

2015

At the very end of 2015 the Cambridge Analytica scandal was first reported by The Guardian and The New York Times.

Over the next few years it emerged that the UK-based political consultancy firm had harvested millions of Facebook users’ data for various clients without their consent.

The scandal implicated US politicians, and the Vote Leave campaign, among others. Eventually the UK Information Commissioner ruled the firm was not involved in the Brexit referendum beyond “some initial enquiries… in the early stages” by UKIP.

It was hugely damaging for Facebook’s reputation and its finances.

2016

As self-shooting live broadcasts became more and more of a feature on the internet, Facebook Live was launched.

Three years later it was used by terrorist Brenton Tarrant as he carried out the Christchurch Mosque shootings in New Zealand, which killed 51 people and left 40 injured.

AI now exists to help Facebook identify and block people from filming themselves carrying out atrocities.

Christchurch mosque shooter Brenton Tarrant streamed the attacks live on Facebook. Pic: Reuters
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Christchurch mosque shooter Brenton Tarrant streamed the attacks live on Facebook. Pic: Reuters

2017

A year after stories became a feature on Instagram, Zuckerberg and his developers introduced them on Facebook.

In a less popular move, Facebook 360 was launched to enable users to upload panoramic photos to their profiles.

2018

The Cambridge Analytica scandal came to a head in 2018, with a raid of their London offices and the company eventually disbanding.

It led to Zuckerberg being compelled to appear before US Congress to answer questions for the first time.

Cambridge Analytica's London offices in 2018. Pic: Reuters
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Cambridge Analytica’s London offices in 2018. Pic: Reuters

Facebook also suffered the fallout of another data breach that year in which hackers accessed logins of 50 million users.

And former deputy prime minister Nick Clegg joined the company as vice president of global affairs. He has since been promoted to president.

Nick Clegg, Facebook's president of global affairs. Pic: AP
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Nick Clegg, Facebook’s president of global affairs. Pic: AP

2019

Three separate data breaches continued to chip away at Facebook’s image in 2019.

The first saw 540 million users’ data made public, the second happened when Facebook “unintentionally” released emails of more than 1.5 million people, and the third saw the names, phone numbers and usernames of 267 million people made public.

In response to privacy concerns, Meta says it’s since invested $5.5bn (£4.3bn) to tackle the issue, with a team of 3,000 people worldwide.

“As expectations around privacy evolve, it’s critical for companies to continue investing in guardrails and processes to meet people’s privacy needs and expectations,” it said in a recent statement.

2020

A second FTC case against Facebook resulted in a court order banning it from monetising data acquired from profiles of users under 18 and limiting its use of AI.

This year, as part of its response to the Cambridge Analytica scandal, Facebook agreed to “fundamentally shift our approach to protecting people’s privacy” and paid a $5bn (£3.9bn) fine.

2021

As COVID continued to separate people all over the world from their loved ones, Zuckerberg announced Facebook Inc would become Meta.

Not only was Meta a parent company for Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp and other assets, it also laid the groundwork for the ‘Metaverse’.

FILE PHOTO: Facebook's new rebrand logo Meta is seen on smartphone in front of displayed logo of Facebook, Messenger, Instagram, Whatsapp and Oculus in this illustration picture taken October 28, 2021. REUTERS/Dado Ruvic/Illustration/File Photo
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Pic: Reuters

In its launch announcement, Zuckerberg described it as “letting you share immersive experiences with other people even when you can’t be together – and do things together you couldn’t do in the physical world” and the “next evolution in a long line of social technologies”.

In December 2021 a joint $150m (£118m) lawsuit sued Facebook over allegations it failed to address misinformation that promoted the genocide of Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar.

In response, Meta created a Myanmar-specific policy to remove praise, support, and advocacy of violence by Myanmar security forces and protesters on all its platforms. It has also banned the Myanmar military itself, including any pages, groups, and accounts representing military-controlled businesses.

Its latest statement added: “Our team continues to monitor the situation on the ground in Myanmar and we will continue to take any action necessary to keep our community safe.”

2022

Meta’s safeguarding measures against harmful content came under unprecedented scrutiny in 2022 when a UK coroner ruled that “negative online content” had played a role in someone’s suicide for the first time.

The case was that of Molly Russell, a 14-year-old schoolgirl from London, who was found dead in her bedroom in 2017.

Molly Russell's family have campaigned for better internet safety since her death in 2017.
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Molly Russell. Pic: PA

Her father Ian campaigned against under-regulated tech companies after evidence emerged she had viewed content that promoted self-harm and suicide on platforms such as Instagram and Pinterest.

The firm’s head of health and wellbeing, Elizabeth Lagone, attended the hearing in person and said many posts viewed by Molly would have violated Instagram’s policies, for which she apologised.

Elizabeth Lagone, Meta's head of health and well-being arrives at Barnet Coroner's Court, north London, to give evidence in the inquest into the death of Molly Russell. The 14-year-old schoolgirl from Harrow, north-west London, viewed an extensive volume of material on social media, including some linked to anxiety, depression, self-harm and suicide, before ending her life in November 2017. Picture date: Friday September 23, 2022.
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Elizabeth Lagone, Meta’s head of health and wellbeing, arrives at Molly Russell’s inquest. Pic: PA

2023

By 2023 the Metaverse had begun to cost its parent company dearly.

By the end of the year, Meta Reality Labs had haemorrhaged $46.5bn (£36bn). As such, 2023 quickly became Zuckerberg’s self-proclaimed “year of efficiency” with 21,000 planned job cuts.

A man tries out a Meta virtual reality headset. Pic: AP
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A man tries out a Meta virtual reality headset. Pic: AP

Meanwhile, Meta honed in on its rival X, formerly Twitter, which had not long been bought outright by Elon Musk. To do so it launched its own subscription service – Meta verified – and a separate X-style app for Instagram called Threads.

By the end of the year, Meta was also facing its third privacy case from the FTC in the US.

So what’s next?

In 2024 and beyond, Facebook’s challenges remain largely the same as recent years – and revolve mainly around misinformation and regulation.

Fears over profitability when billions were lost following the launch of the Metaverse in 2021 appear to have been reversed, with share prices reaching an all-time high.

Social media consultant and industry analyst Matt Navara says this is largely to do with job cuts that have enabled Zuckerberg’s AI work on the Metaverse to be a cash cow for the ad revenue business.

Similarly, the threat once posed by TikTok has mostly subsided with the success of Instagram Reels and TikTok’s growth plateauing. Meta has also benefited from Elon Musk’s takeover and rebranding of X, which has facilitated the launch of a rival app Threads.

Mr Navarra comments that Meta has often proved “like Teflon” in that “nothing very bad seems to stick for long”.

But as 2024 began for Zuckerberg answering awkward questions around online harms in the US Senate, it appears legislation that could curb how Meta’s platform operate is “closer than ever”.

“We’re at the point where it’s hard for US lawmakers to do nothing, with bipartisan support for new regulation coming through.”

But he says questions remain on how impactful legislation would be – as has been in the case in the UK and Europe.

Meta has already said it will stop under-18s from being able to view harmful content about self-harm and eating disorders.

And in a year when two billion people are going to the polls in elections, misinformation will be Meta’s ultimate test.

“All platforms will face criticism,” Mr Navarra says. “There will be headlines around the abuse of AI and what Meta’s role has been. It probably has the most advanced automated systems in place to tackle it, but undoubtedly things will slip through the cracks and I suspect it’ll never be enough.”

Beyond this year, Mr Navarra predicts that Zuckerberg’s vision of the Metaverse is still “someway out”, and possibly into the next decade, with virtual reality headsets unlikely to be commercially viable until at least 2027.

2024

So far in 2024, Meta has promised to hide content that promotes self-harm and eating disorders on Facebook and Instagram.

It says it plans to use the 40,000 staff it has working on safety and security worldwide and the $20bn invested since 2016 to make further progress on those issues.

Mark Zuckerberg returns to his seat after standing and facing the public.
Pic: Reuters
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Families hold up pictures of their children as Zuckerberg answers questions on online sexual exploitation. Pic: Reuters

And Zuckerberg has appeared before the US Senate, apologising to families whose children have fallen victim to online sexual exploitation on his platforms.

In response to this year’s elections, Meta has promised to block new political ads during the final week of the US election campaign and will require advertisers to disclose when they use AI in social or political posts.

Shares skyrocketed when it was announced shareholders would receive dividends from Meta for the first time at the start of February.

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Joe Biden twice confuses Gaza with Ukraine as he approves US military aid airdrops

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Joe Biden twice confuses Gaza with Ukraine as he approves US military aid airdrops

President Joe Biden twice confused Gaza with Ukraine as he announced the US would provide desperately needed aid to the war-ravaged Palestinian territory.

Mr Biden, 81, confirmed on Friday that humanitarian assistance would be airdropped into Gaza – a day after the Hamas-run health ministry said 30,000 Palestinians have died since the war began last October.

“In the coming days, we’re going to join with our friends in Jordan and others who are providing airdrops of additional food and supplies”, the president said, adding the US will “seek to open up other avenues in, including possibly a marine corridor”.

Middle East latest updates

But Mr Biden twice mistakenly referred to airdrops to help Ukraine – leaving White House officials to clarify that he was in fact talking about Gaza.

Pic: Reuters
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Pic: Reuters

Mr Biden revealed the development while hosting Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni in Washington – as he warned “children’s lives are on the line”.

“Aid flowing to Gaza is nowhere nearly enough,” he said.

More on Gaza

“Now, it’s nowhere nearly enough. Innocent lives are on the line and children’s lives are on the line.

“We won’t stand by until we get more aid in there. We should be getting hundreds of trucks in, not just several.”

Mr Biden also said he hoped there would be a ceasefire deal between Israel and Hamas by the time of Ramadan, the Muslim holy month which is expected to start on 10 March.

He told reporters: “We’re still working real hard at it. We’re not there yet.”

He said all sides have to agree on timing but that “they’re still far apart”.

President Biden hosted Italian premier, Giorgia Meloni at the White House on Friday Pic: Reuters
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President Biden hosted Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni at the White House on Friday. Pic: Reuters

Mr Biden’s promise of airdrops came a day after dozens of Palestinians perished during a deadly aid truck incident in Gaza City.

At least 115 Palestinians were killed and more than 750 others were injured, according to Gaza’s Hamas-run health ministry, on Thursday.

Airdrops are a last resort for when things are really desperate

Airdrops are a last resort. They are inefficient, inaccurate, expensive and dangerous.

They are only chosen as an option when things are really desperate.

The White House spokesman admitted as much just after the president’s announcement: “There are no missions more complicated than humanitarian assistance airdrops,” John Kirby said.

In this case, the decision to resort to them is all the more remarkable because America is dropping aid to counter failures in a war being prosecuted with US weapons by one of its closest allies.

Israel controls the aid that gets into Gaza. To have to airdrop it is to admit a fundamental failure and a humanitarian disaster.

It’s inefficient because only small amounts of aid can be dropped at a time – palates of food parachuted from the back of planes.

It is inaccurate because you have no control over precisely where the aid will land.

It is dangerous because the aid drops could hit people as they land and because they could cause stampedes on the ground.

Usually aid is distributed with the coordination of aid officials on the ground.

It’s also dangerous for the aircrews flying over a war zone.

It is expensive because it requires significant military coordination.

In short – it is a stark illustration of just how much of a (man-made) disaster Gaza now is.

Witnesses said nearby Israeli troops opened fire as huge crowds raced to pull goods off an aid convoy.

Israel said many of the dead were trampled in a stampede linked to the chaos – and that its troops fired at some people in the crowd who they believed moved towards them in a threatening way.

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IDF: Aid convoy incident in Gaza is a tragedy

On Friday evening, the UK joined demands for an investigation into the killings, described by Foreign Secretary David Cameron as “horrific”.

Lord Cameron said there must be “an urgent investigation and accountability” – amid growing international calls for a probe into the episode.

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Analysis of the deadly Gaza aid truck incident

“This must not happen again,” he said.

While he did not directly blame Israel, he linked the deaths to the lack of aid being allowed into Gaza.

“We can’t separate what happened yesterday from the inadequate aid supplies,” Lord Cameron said.

“In February, only half the number of trucks crossed into Gaza that did in January. This is simply unacceptable.

“Israel has an obligation to ensure that significantly more humanitarian aid reaches the people of Gaza.”

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French President Emmanuel Macron expressed his “strongest condemnation” for the shootings and called for “truth, justice and respect for international law” in a post on X.

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres also condemned the incident on the social media platform, writing: “The desperate civilians in Gaza need urgent help, including those in the north where the UN has not been able to deliver aid in more than a week.”

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Ukraine war: Why the Baltic states on NATO’s frontline with Russia are urging their allies to ‘wake up’

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Ukraine war: Why the Baltic states on NATO's frontline with Russia are urging their allies to 'wake up'

The Baltic states have an urgent message for the UK and other NATO allies about the threat posed by Russia: “Wake up! It won’t stop in Ukraine.”

Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania are teaching more of their citizens how to fight and have even announced plans to build a defensive line, including bunkers, along hundreds of miles of border that separates their territories from their much larger neighbour.

Now, as concern grows within NATO about the potential for large-scale conflict returning to Europe, Sky News has travelled from northeast Estonia to southwest Lithuania to hear from soldiers, civilians and politicians who are preparing for a war they hope never to fight.

As former members of the Soviet Union, the Baltics have been sounding the alarm about the existential menace posed by Moscow ever since they joined the NATO alliance two decades ago.

Back then, though, no one really listened.

Instead, the UK and other allies were focused on the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan – countering insurgents and Islamist militants is a very different type of fight than a conventional war against a peer enemy like Russia.

Adding to a collective erosion in NATO’s defences, many European states, including Britain, significantly reduced stockpiles of Cold War-era weapons, such as tanks, artillery and ammunition, following the collapse of the Soviet Union, mistakenly believing they no longer needed to be ready to fight a war of survival at a moment’s notice.

Russia’s earlier invasion of Ukraine in 2014, with the capture of Crimea and seizure of swathes of the Donbas, started to change that calculation – but only very slowly.

People in Moscow wave flags bearing the face of Vladimir Putin as they show their support for Russia's annexation of Crimea in 2014. Pic: Reuters
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People in Moscow show their support for Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014. Pic: Reuters

The concept of ‘deterrence by denial’

The alliance agreed to bolster its defences along the eastern flank of the Baltic states and Poland, with the deployment in 2017 of units of allied troops to all four countries – around 800 soldiers to each nation.

But this was done relatively cautiously – to minimise the risk of triggering an escalation of tensions directly between Moscow and the West as plenty of NATO states, including France and Germany, still had relatively close ties with Russia and did a lot of business.

As a result, the limited mission was not designed to prevent an invasion, but rather to provide a “tripwire” should Russian forces attack that would trigger a much larger allied response to then push them back out.

However, Vladimir Putin’s full-scale war in Ukraine on 24 February 2022 fundamentally altered that thinking too.

The allies realised once Russian troops had entered a country it would take a lot more effort to eject them, so they agreed to beef up their eastern defences even more and expanded them into four other nations.

The aim today is to prevent Russia from ever trying to invade – a concept known as “deterrence by denial”.

Throughout this evolution, the loudest voices inside NATO – urging allies to go further, faster and raising the alarm about Russia’s intentions – have been Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania.

They have also been amongst the strongest supporters of Ukraine and have warned that if Moscow prevails over Kyiv, it will likely try to test NATO’s defences next.

The site of a shopping centre in Kyiv that was bombed weeks after Russia's invasion in 2022. Pic: Reuters
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The site of a shopping centre in Kyiv that was bombed weeks after Russia’s invasion in 2022. Pic: Reuters

A potential soft spot for any Russian attack

The city of Narva lies on Estonia’s northeastern tip – right next door to Russia.

A vast, medieval castle, with large, stone walls and an Estonian flag fluttering high, stands at one edge of the city, next to a river that marks the border.

On the opposite bank is a second, similarly grand, historic castle, but it flies a Russian flag.

A crossing point, called the Friendship Bridge, connects Narva with the Russian city of Ivangorod.

It is only open to pedestrians after the Russian authorities closed their end to vehicle traffic for construction work at the start of February.

A historic castle in Estonia flies a Russian flag
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A historic castle in Estonia flies a Russian flag

Arnold Vaino, a police officer with the Estonian border guard, walked us on to the bridge, stopping just short of a red post that marks the halfway point and the start of Russia.

He recalled how he felt on the day the Kremlin launched its all-out invasion of Ukraine.

“Nobody feels comfortable when you hear that war has started,” he said. “But [we don’t feel] scared, for sure. But you open your eyes more wide.”

In an indication of the complexities of the geography and history of the region, the majority of residents in Narva speak Russian and some are sympathetic to Moscow.

It makes the city a potential soft spot for any Russian attack under the guise of coming to the aide of the Russian nationals who live in Narva.

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Any such move, though, would trigger an allied response under one of the founding principles of NATO – an attack on one is an attack on all.

There is no sense of fondness for the Russian government in most other parts of Estonia, including an island of about 9,000 people off the country’s western coast.

NATO commanders believe that Hiiumaa island could be another potential target for Moscow in any war with the West because of its strategic location in the Baltic Sea.

If Russian troops were to seize the territory, they would potentially have the ability to block access to the sea and isolate the Baltic states.

Such a prospect is one that the islanders are doing all they can to deter.

Estonian volunteers urge British civilians to learn to fight

We met a unit of citizen soldiers, faces painted army green, as they practised ambushes with rifles in the forest.

The volunteers – many of them middle-aged dads and the odd mum – are dubbed “the SAS” because they train on Saturdays and Sundays.

Estonia's weekend warriors are knowns as the 'SAS' because they train on Saturdays and Sundays
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Estonia’s weekend warriors are knowns as the ‘SAS’ because they train on Saturdays and Sundays

They said British civilians should also consider getting off their sofas and learning how to fight.

“It’s wrong to think that somebody else is coming to fight your war if you are not ready to defend yourself,” said Major Tanel Kapper, who commands the Estonian Defence League forces on the island.

Estonian military chiefs have doubled the size of their territorial defence force – the people who would support the much smaller professional army in a crisis – to 20,000 personnel after what Russia did in Ukraine two years ago.

That number comprises about 10,000 Defence League volunteers and the new addition of some 10,000 former conscript soldiers who are part of the military reserve.

‘We will kill as many of you as possible’

Polishing part of a rifle back at his base, a volunteer called Taavi, a father of two, said he decided to join the Defence League on Hiiumaa island along with about 14 friends last year in part as a response to the Ukraine war.

The construction worker said he did not want conflict, but was ready for combat if Russia invades.

“I have to take the weapon and try to protect my family, my home,” he said.

Major Kapper had a warning for Moscow: “It will be a bloody mess if you come here. We will definitely kill as many of you as possible.”

As for whether he had a message to other NATO countries like the UK that maybe are not doing as much to bolster their defences, the officer said: “To wake up. It won’t stop in Ukraine. If we don’t stop them, then they will come further and further.”

Latvian volunteers train at a base near Belarus
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Latvian volunteers train at a base near Belarus

Latvia bulking up its military due to Russia threat

There is a similar sense of urgency in next door Latvia, which reintroduced conscription last year after becoming the only Baltic state to halt mandatory military service in 2006.

The country plans to double the size of its armed forces – professionals and reserves – to 61,000 by 2032.

“War [in Ukraine] is already happening, so it’s not a question: is Russia going to be aggressive? It already is aggressive,” said Krisjanis Karins, the Latvian foreign minister.

“The point of the draft is to beef up capable and equipped and trained reservists,” he told Sky News in an interview on the sidelines of a major security conference in Munich in February.

“It’s not replacing the professional army, it’s augmenting the professional army.”

Asked whether it would make a difference if the UK instated conscription, Mr Karins, a former prime minister, said: “I think it would make a difference if any European country and of course the larger countries, it would make a bigger difference.”

Sky News was invited to visit a training base in southeast Latvia, close to its border with Belarus, a close Russian ally, where a mix of conscripts and other recruits were going through a three-week basic training course with the National Guard.

Latvian volunteers would offer support to the regular military during a time of war
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Latvian volunteers would offer support to the regular military during a time of war

‘Every man needs to at least try military life’

The National Guard is a branch of the armed forces that is made up of volunteers. At a time of war, they would offer support to the professional military.

“Bam! Bam! Bam!” the recruits shouted, rifles raised, mimicking the sound of gunshots, as they practised a response to an ambush on a muddy shooting range surrounded by forest.

Eduard, 18, was one of seven conscripts among the group of about 20 on the range. All seven were voluntary conscripts, rather than being ordered to serve.

“I think that every man in the world needs to at least try military life,” said Eduard.

A Latvian general explained how conscription is about much more than simply generating fresh boots on the ground – it is also about growing a sense of national service and a desire for each citizen to do their bit to help protect the country.

“Everyone has the right to serve – an obligation to serve – the nation,” said Major General Andis Dilans, the chief of the joint staff of the National Armed Forces, Latvia’s second most senior commander.

“This is really the cornerstone of democracy,” he said in an interview in the capital Riga.

“Therefore, we looked at this not just as a war-fighting force of the conscription, but looking at the connection between the public and the military in case of crisis, in case of war.”

Civilians have been practising since Russia's invasion
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A Lithuanian military training exercise in a forest

How Lithuania borders a potential flashpoint

The final leg of our journey took us to the southwestern edge of Lithuania, which borders a heavily fortified Russian exclave called Kaliningrad.

The Russian territory also shares a border with Poland, another NATO state.

It means the only way for vehicles, such as lorries loaded with goods, coaches carrying passengers, or ordinary cars to travel between the exclave and mainland Russia is by transiting through Lithuania and into Belarus.

The crossing was calm when we visited, with a long queue of lorries on the Russian side, waiting to be allowed into Lithuania.

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A border guard said the number of vehicles – about 300 per day in total, moving in and out – had roughly halved since 2022 because Western sanctions had limited the types of goods that are permitted to be transited through Lithuania.

Communication between the guards on either side of a long wire, fence, topped in sections with barbed wire and bristling with cameras, had also been all but severed.

In the past, officials, who might have been stationed at the crossing point for two or three decades, would often speak with their Russian counterparts but that has stopped completely.

A mobile phone line still exists that can be called in an emergency, but the guard said that the Russian side does not tend to pick up.

The Kaliningrad. border
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The Kaliningrad border

Another potential flashpoint is a nearby strip of land, about 60 miles long, that connects Kaliningrad with Belarus and is bordered by Lithuania and Poland.

It is called the Suwalki Gap.

The concern among NATO commanders is that if Russia were to capture the corridor, it would provide another way to cut off access to the Baltic states.

Gitanas Nauseda, Lithuania’s president, summed up the response to the threat next door.

“All Baltic countries, Poland and other countries of the eastern flank of the NATO do a lot in order to utilise all the possibilities of [the] collective defence system, called NATO,” he said in an interview.

“But we also do a lot individually by increasing our defence spending, by closely cooperating with our neighbours and my country is especially active in this field.”

It is why a growing number of citizens in Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania are volunteering to serve.

But their ability to deter Russia may depend on whether the citizens of other allies follow suit.

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Alexei Navalny’s funeral lifts spirits as many feared hope died with Russian opposition leader

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Alexei Navalny's funeral lifts spirits as many feared hope died with Russian opposition leader

It is hard to grasp that Alexei Navalny is gone.

Navalny was a colossus of a man, whose energy, irreverence and astonishing determination touched a chord with so many in Russia who opposed Vladimir Putin‘s rule and who dreamed their country might be different.

His death felt personal to them.

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That is why so many thousands came to honour him in Moscow at the funeral that his mother, Lyudmila Navalnaya, fought so hard to have.

They queued along the pavements on both sides of the church in long, orderly lines.

People crowded on to the stairways of neighbouring shops to try and get a glimpse as the coffin went into the church.

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They knew they were unlikely to get in themselves, but they wanted to be there for the ceremony before walking the 30 minutes on to the Borisovskoye cemetery in the hope they would also have their chance to say goodbye.

Pic: Reuters
People gather near the Borisovskoye cemetery during the funeral of Russian opposition politician Alexei Navalny in Moscow, Russia, March 1, 2024. REUTERS/Stringer
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Crowds gather near the Borisovskoye cemetery during Navalny’s funeral. Pic: Reuters

Flowers laid in memory of Alexei Navalny in Moscow
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Flowers laid in memory of Alexei Navalny in Moscow

Along the way they chanted: “Alexei” and “Navalny”, but also “No to war” and “Russia will be free”.

These last were chants of old, from the days – not so long ago but they seem like a lifetime – when there were rallies in Russia.

But not “We will not forgive”, “We thank the parents for their son” or “Navalny our hero!”.

Those were unique to this moment, to its pain and emotion.

No one wanted this rally to descend into police chaos. They were careful to preserve the solemnity of the occasion and, for their part, the police did the same.

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Russian police check IDs of Navalny mourners

“It is very difficult to stay wise and not be overwhelmed with anger,” said 70-year-old Tatyana.

“It is very sad because I think I won’t see the end of this tragedy with my country, my beloved country or the tragedy of this war.

“I came here to look at people and not to feel alone.”

When Navalny died, many people said to us they felt that hope had died with him.

Lyudmila Navalnaya, the mother of late Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny, attends a funeral service and a farewell ceremony for her son at the Soothe My Sorrows church in Moscow, Russia, March 1, 2024. REUTERS/Stringer
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Alexei Navalny’s mother Lyudmila Navalnaya attends the funeral service for her son. Pic: Reuters/Stringer

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Unseen Navalny interview unearthed

But this turnout seemed to lift spirits.

“I feel despair and crushing sadness,” said Barbara.

“But at the same time, you feel inspired by seeing thousands of people gathering here today, despite everything they might face by doing so – and that gives you hope more than anything else.”

May it provide solace, too, to all of his supporters in exile who could not be there.

May it prove some comfort to his wife, Yulia, and their two children, who for their own safety could not attend their own father’s funeral.

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Navalny widow: ‘Putin cannot be negotiated with’

On social media, Yulia paid tribute to her husband, even as her mother sat with Lyudmila in the cemetery and watched as the mourners passed by.

“I don’t know how to live without you”, Yulia wrote, “but I will try to make you happy for me up there and proud of me.

“I don’t know if I can handle it but I will try.”

FILE PHOTO: Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny and his wife Yulia attend a hearing at the Lublinsky district court in Moscow, Russia, April 23, 2015. REUTERS/Tatyana Makeyeva/File Photo
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Navalny and his wife Yulia attend a hearing in Moscow in 2015. Pic: Reuters

His daughter, Dasha, also wrote to her father: “You gave your life for me, for Mum, for Zakhar, for Russia. And I promise that I will live my life the way you taught me, so you’re proud of me and most importantly, with the same smile on my face.”

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Alexei Navalny kept smiling, right until the end.

In his last-ever public appearance, the day before his death, via video-link from the penal colony in Russia’s Far North, he was grinning and joking with the judge and prosecutors.

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His humour was so infectious that they were laughing too.

To face the most terrifying hardships with good humour, surely that is the very essence of courage.

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