Russia in Review, April 16-23, 2021

This Week’s Highlights

  • In his annual address to the federal parliament on April 21, Russian President Vladimir Putin accused Western countries of trying to “to impose their will on others by force” and warned against crossing Russia’s red lines, which his press secretary defined as the “interests of our external and domestic security and preventing any foreign meddling.” Putin’s warning came less than a week after French President Emmanuel Macron called for drawing "clear red lines" for Russia. 
  • The Czech Republic’s accusations that Russian agents were involved in a 2014 arms depot blast set off a chain of mutual expulsions of diplomats not only in Moscow and Prague, but also in Moscow and Bratislava as the Czech Republic called on fellow EU and NATO members for "solidarity.” 
  • At the April 22 climate summit, U.S. President Joe Biden committed the United States to slashing its greenhouse gas emissions by as much as 52 percent by 2030, while Putin said Russia had set out to "significantly limit" net emissions by 2050.   
  • Moscow has ordered its troops to start returning to their permanent bases following extensive military drills in southern Russia and annexed Crimea. Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said April 22 that the objectives of the snap inspection "have been fully achieved" and that the troops would return to their bases by May 1. However, Shoigu also said Russia’s 41st combined arms army would leave its equipment and weapons at a base near the Ukrainian border.
  • Putin did not discuss the anticipated unification between Russia and Belarus during late-night talks with his Belarusian counterpart Alexander Lukashenko, the Kremlin said April 23.
  • Biden is likely to recognize the massacre of Armenians by the Ottoman Empire during World War I on April 24.
  • Tens of thousands of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny's supporters took to the streets in major Russian cities April 21. Navalny was hospitalized April 19, weeks after beginning a hunger strike, but he then said he was ending the strike over his medical treatment in prison saying he had "achieved enough."
  • Russians worry about the "invasion of wolves" a great deal, but less than about rising food prices and police and courts’ actions in response to protests, according to monitoring of Russian social media platforms in the first quarter of 2021 conducted by CROS. Polling by the Levada Center shows that 82 percent of respondents fear their loved ones and children falling ill, followed by fear of world war at 62 percent, with fear of abuse by authorities in third place with 58 percent.


I. U.S. and Russian priorities for the bilateral agenda

Nuclear security:

  • An electrochemical plant run by Rosatom, Russia’s state nuclear corporation, has announced the construction of a new uranium hexafluoride handling unit, doubling the enterprise’s capacity to process the controversial substance, which many have called radioactive waste. (Bellona, 04.16.21)
  • A Russian military appeals court in Siberia has upheld the sentence of Private Ramil Shamsutdinov, who was sentenced to 24 1/2 years in prison in January for killing eight fellow servicemen in a rampage he says was the result of hazing he faced in the army. Shamsutdinov served in a unit which is reportedly part of the Defense Ministry’s 12th Main Directorate, which is responsible for nuclear weapons. (RFE/RL, 04.22.21, Russia Matters, 04.21.21)

North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs:

  • No significant developments.

Iran and its nuclear program:

  • Iran and world powers have made progress in talks to save their 2015 nuclear accord, but “much more hard work" is necessary to rescue the deal, EU envoy Enrique Mora said April 20. Mikhail Ulyanov, Russia's envoy to the talks, said on Twitter that the group would seek “practical steps leading to full restoration of the Iranian nuclear deal." "To summarize the outcome of two weeks of discussions, we can note with great satisfaction that the negotiations have reached the drafting stage," Ulyanov wrote. (RFE/RL, 04.21.21, Jerusalem Post, 04.19.21)

Great Power rivalry/New Cold War/NATO-Russia relations:

  • “I just have to make it clear, we have enough patience, responsibility, professionalism, self-confidence and certainty in our cause, as well as common sense, when making a decision of any kind. But I hope that no one will think about crossing the ‘red line’ with regard to Russia. We ourselves will determine in each specific case where it will be drawn,” Russian President Vladimir Putin said in his annual address to parliament April 21. “We really do not want to burn bridges. But if someone mistakes our good intentions for indifference or weakness and intends to burn or even blow up these bridges, they must know that Russia's response will be asymmetrical, swift and tough,” he said. (The Kremlin, 04.21.21)
    • Putin accused Western countries of levying “illegal” economic sanctions “to impose their will on others by force.” “This is turning into some kind of sport—who can say something negative about Russia the loudest,” said Putin, noting that Moscow behaves “in a restrained and modest manner” in response. (The Moscow Times, 04.21.21)      
    • Putin did not explicitly refer to either the U.S. or China or U.S. President Joe Biden or Chinese President Xi Jinping in his address. However, he said in a not-so-subtle reference to the U.S. and its allies: “Of course, all sorts of petty Tabaquis are running around them like Tabaqui ran around Shere Khan—everything is like in Kipling's book—howling along in order to make their sovereign happy.” (The Kremlin, 04.21.21)
    • "As for the red lines, they are clear," Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said in reference to Putin’s address. "In the first place, these are our national interests, the interests of our external and domestic security and preventing any foreign meddling ... in our elections and other political processes. This is preventing an insulting talk with our country, infringing on our country’s economic interests and so on," he noted.  (TASS, 04.21.21)
  • “In recent years, relations between Russia and the United States have actually moved from rivalry to confrontation, in fact, returned to the era of the Cold War," deputy secretary of the Russian Security Council Dmitry Medvedev told RIA Novosti. He recalled the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 and noted that then the situation "was saved by the leaders of the two superpowers, who maintained a sober assessment of the situation, who recognized and accepted the ‘wisdom’ of a compromise." “There was an equal dialogue between the USSR and the United States, carried out without the language of threats and ultimatums," the former Russian president added. (Russia Matters, 04.23.21)
  • The international community must draw "clear red lines" with Russia, French President Emmanuel Macron said, including implementing sanctions after any "unacceptable behavior" by Putin. He said, however, that sanctions alone are not sufficient. Macron said he "fully" shares Biden's desire to open dialogue with Russia. However, he said it was important to be clear with Putin "when we are not aligned." (CBS News, 04.17.21)
  • Russia has declared 10 employees at the U.S. embassy in Moscow to be personae non gratae in what it called a "mirror" response to Washington's expulsion earlier this month of 10 Russian diplomats and wide-ranging sanctions as it moved to hold the Kremlin accountable for actions against the U.S. and its interests. In its statement, Russia said "further steps will follow...the latest 'wave' of illegal U.S. anti-Russian sanctions." (RFE/RL, 04.21.21)
  • The Czech Republic has said it wants more Russian diplomats to leave the country as tensions between Prague and Moscow escalate over Russia's alleged role in a deadly 2014 explosion at a Czech arms depot. Newly appointed Czech Foreign Minister Jakub Kulhanek said the decision meant about 60 staff would have to leave the Prague embassy, which has around 90 staff in total and is considerably bigger than its Czech equivalent in the Russian capital. Kulhanek says the number of people that will be allowed by Prague and Moscow at their respective embassies will be 32. (RFE/RL, 04.23.21, RFE/RL, 04.22.21, Financial Times, 04.22.21, Financial Times, 04.18.21)
    • Czech police issued a request for assistance in searching for two men who it said had been in the Czech Republic from Oct. 11 until Oct. 16 in 2014, the day of the explosion at the munitions dump. After briefly staying in Prague, they moved to the Moravian-Silesian region, and then to the Zlin district, where the explosions took place. According to Czech police, the two men had carried various passports, including Russian ones in the names of Alexander Petrov and Ruslan Boshirov—aliases used by two Russian intelligence officers charged by the U.K. with the attempted murder of Sergei Skripal. (Financial Times, 04.18.21, Financial Times, 04.20.21)
    • "Russia was not attacking the Czech Republic. The agents attacked the goods of a Bulgarian arms trader, who was probably selling these arms to parties fighting Russia," Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babis said April 19. "The ammunition was supposed to explode en route. Of course it is unacceptable that GRU agents were undertaking the operation here—which they bungled," he said. Acting Czech Foreign Minister Jan Hamacek on April 19 confirmed the trader to have been Emilian Gebrev, an arms-factory owner who survived an attempt to poison him in 2015. (RFE/RL, 04.21.21)
    • Czech officials said April 18 they plan to exclude Russia’s Rosatom from taking part in a $7 billion tender to replace the nation’s aging power plant. The Czech government then said April 19 it will no longer consider using Russia’s coronavirus vaccine before EU approval. (The Moscow Times, 04.20.21)                     
    • The Czech Republic has called on fellow EU and NATO members for "solidarity" action to support it amid the diplomatic spat between Prague and Moscow over Czech claims that Russian military agents were behind the 2014 arms depot explosion. (RFE/RL, 04.20.21, The Moscow Times/AFP, 04.22.21)
      • Russia on April 20 declared two Bulgarian diplomats "personae non gratae" in a tit-for-tat response to Sofia's expulsion of two Russian diplomats last month over suspected espionage. (RFE/RL, 04.20.21)
      • Slovakia has decided to expel three Russian diplomats, Prime Minister Eduard Heger said. (RFE/RL, 04.20.21, The Moscow Times/AFP, 04.22.21)
      • Russia has expelled five staff members at Poland's embassy in Moscow in a tit-for-tat move after Warsaw declared three Russian diplomats in Poland personae non gratae for violating their diplomatic status. (RFE/RL, 04.23.21)
      • The Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania said April 23 they were expelling a total of four Russian diplomats in solidarity with the Czech Republic. (AFP, 04.23.21)
  • A Russian MiG-31 Foxhound fighter jet intercepted U.S. Air Force RC-135 reconnaissance aircraft over the Pacific Ocean along the southeastern coast of the Kamchatka Peninsula, the Russian Defense Ministry said April 16. (Defense Blog, 04.18.21)
  • According to U.S. officials, Russia is trying to find a way to jam and block signals from the U.S. Air Force RQ-4 Global Hawk remotely piloted and unarmed aerial reconnaissance system. In the past few months, high-flying RQ-4 Global Hawk unmanned spy planes have been highly active in the European theater, along the western borders of Russia. (Defense Blog, 04.22.21)

China-Russia: Allied or Aligned?

  • “Our sense is that [China] is paying very close attention to what’s going on as they did initially with things in the Ukraine,” one senior U.S. defense official said, speaking on condition of anonymity. “I think it’s fair to say that they are looking closely to determine how they might leverage lessons learned into their own national interests.” “We are looking at the situation of how to deter both [Russia and China] simultaneously; yet, individually, what works with one may not work with the other,” said another U.S. defense official, speaking on condition of anonymity. (Foreign Policy, 04.20.21)
  • Beijing supports the proposal put forward by Putin to set up an in-person meeting with the leaders of the U.N. Security Council’s permanent members as soon as the epidemiological situation allows, said the spokesman for the Chinese Foreign Ministry. (TASS, 04.22. 21)
  • Russia and China welcome cooperation with foreign partners in creating the International Scientific Lunar Station (ISLS), Russia’s state space corporation Roscosmos and the China National Space Administration (CNSA) said in a joint statement April 23. (TASS, 04.23.21)
  • Key trading partners of Russia among non-CIS countries in January to February of this year are China with a turnover of $17.4 billion (down 1 percent year-on-year), Germany with $7.3 billion (+1.5 percent) and the Netherlands with $5.3 billion (-7.2 percent). (TASS, 04.20.21)

Missile defense:

  • No significant developments.

Nuclear arms control:

  • “Russia is urging its partners once again to discuss the issues related to strategic armaments and to ensuring global stability. The subject matter and the goal of these talks could be the creation of an environment for a conflict-free coexistence based on the security equation, which would include not only the traditional strategic armaments, such as intercontinental ballistic missiles, heavy bombers and submarines, but—I would like to emphasize this—all offensive and defensive systems capable of attaining strategic goals regardless of the armament,” Putin said in his annual address to parliament April 21. (The Kremlin, 04.21.21)


  • No significant developments.

Conflict in Syria:

  • Russia unleashed airstrikes that it said killed as many as 200 militants in central Syria amid an intensifying assault by Islamic State insurgents that threatens the Syrian government's access to oil and heightens the risks for its foreign backers. The airstrikes on a training camp took place April 19 in Palmyra. (Wall Street Journal, 04.21.21, AFP, 04.20.21)
  • Authorities in northeast Syria handed over 44 children of Islamic State fighters in Syria to the Russian government, Kurdish officials said April 18. The handover took place after a meeting in the city of Qamishli between local officials and a Russian government delegation. (VOA, 04.19.21)

Cyber security:

  • The U.S. government said that conferences operated by a well-known cybersecurity vendor serve as recruitment grounds for Russian intelligence, and accused the company of supporting the Kremlin's spy agencies. The Treasury Department said April 22 that Moscow-based Pozitiv Teknolodzhiz AO, known as Positive Technologies, along with five other Russian research centers and companies, aided the country's intelligence services in honing their cyber capabilities for operations such as the breach of SolarWinds. The inclusion of Positive Technologies is notable due to its extensive client list of Western and Asian companies, including major banks, tech companies and telecom firms. (Wall Street Journal, 04.19.21)
  • A sophisticated China-linked hacking group infiltrated dozens of U.S. government agencies, defense contractors, financial institutions and other critical sectors, according to a private firm working with the federal government. The intrusions are ongoing, FireEye said, and exploit weaknesses in popular Pulse Secure virtual private networks. At least a dozen U.S. government agencies have or recently had contracts for the software. (The Washington Post, 04.21.21)

Energy exports from CIS:

  • Gazprom has booked all additional Ukrainian transit capacities offered for May, according to the results of the monthly Regional Booking Platform auction. The Russian gas company requested all of the 15 million cubic meters per day offered. The company purchased a little less for April, March and February at 14.2 million cubic meters per day in each case. (Interfax, 04.19.21)

U.S.-Russian economic ties:

  • No significant developments.

U.S.-Russian relations in general:

  • At the climate summit on April 22, Biden committed the U.S. to slashing its greenhouse gas emissions by as much as 52 percent by 2030. Xi, whose country is the world’s biggest emissions culprit, followed by the U.S., said China would work with America in cutting emissions. Putin said that Russia, the world's fourth-highest producer of carbon emissions, was committed to fulfilling its international obligations to combat climate change. "Russia is approaching with complete responsibility its fulfillment of international obligations in this area," Putin told the summit. He added that Russia had set out to "significantly limit" net emissions by 2050. "Despite Russia's size, its geography, climate and the structure of its economy, I am sure this task is achievable," Putin added. He concluded by saying that Russia was interested in "stepping up international cooperation" on climate change. (The Moscow Times/AFP, 04.22.21, Bellona, 04.22.21)
  • Amid heightened tensions between Washington and Moscow, U.S. national security adviser Jake Sullivan has discussed with his Russian counterpart bilateral issues, “regional and global matters of concern,” as well as “the prospect of a presidential summit.” Sullivan and Nikolai Patrushev, the secretary of the Russian Security Council, "discussed the preparations” for a summit between Putin and Biden, as well as “possible directions for the development of Russian-U.S. cooperation," Russia's Security Council said. (RFE/RL, 04.19.21)
  • U.S. national security adviser Jake Sullivan warned April 18 that Russia will face "consequences" if hunger-striking Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny dies. "In terms of the specific measures we would undertake, we are looking at a variety of different costs that we would impose, and I'm not going to telegraph that publicly at this point," Sullivan said. (The Moscow Times, 04.18.21)                       
  • U.S. Ambassador to Russia John Sullivan has left Russia for consultations with Washington on the future of U.S.-Russia ties. In a statement April 19, Sullivan said, “I believe it is important for me to speak directly with my new colleagues in the Biden administration in Washington about the current state of bilateral relations between the United States and Russia.” (The Moscow Times, 04.22.21)
    • Peskov said the return of the U.S. and Russian ambassadors to their respective posts would depend on talks on a range of issues. "If as a result of that there arises the desirability [of the envoys' return], then the ambassadors will probably return and begin to fulfill their duties," he said April 20. At the same time, the Kremlin has said it viewed the prospects of a Biden-Putin summit “positively.” (The Moscow Times, 04.22.21)
  • Russia's space agency said April 20 it hoped to launch its own orbital station in 2025 as Moscow considers withdrawing from the International Space Station program to go it alone. Roscosmos chief Dmitry Rogozin said work had begun on the fist module of a new station. “We are beginning negotiations with our NASA partners, we are formalizing them now,” Rogozin said. “It does not mean that the station will be scrapped and dumped into the ocean immediately after 2025. We will simply hand over the responsibility for our segment to the partners.” (Financial Times, 04.21.21, The Moscow Times, 04.20.21)                      
  • Two Russian cosmonauts and a U.S. astronaut have landed safely in Kazakhstan following their six-month stint at the ISS. Cosmonauts Sergei Ryzhikov and Sergei Kud-Sverchkov and astronaut Kathleen Rubins touched down as scheduled in the early morning hours of April 17. (RFE/RL, 04.17.21)
  • A meeting of the extended trio (Russia, the United States, China and Pakistan) for settlement in Afghanistan is planned in Doha next week. (TASS, 04.21.21)
  • An independent, bipartisan advisory body has reiterated its call for the U.S. State Department to add Russia to its register of the world's "worst violators" of religious freedom. The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom proposes in its annual report released on April 21 that Russia, India, Syria and Vietnam be put on the "countries of particular concern" list. (RFE/RL, 04.21.21)
  • Matthew Rojansky, director of the Wilson Center's Kennan Institute, is no longer being considered for the position of Russia director on the National Security Council. (Politico, 04.19.21)
  • The United States "should be getting along with Russia instead of forcing Russia to go into the hands of China," which is the "worst thing you could do,” former U.S. President Donald Trump said. "I got along great with President Putin. I liked him. He liked me," Trump said. "That's a good thing, not a bad thing." (The Washington Post, 04.20.21)


II. Russia’s domestic policies

Domestic politics, economy and energy:

  • Russia on April 23 confirmed 8,840 new coronavirus cases and 398 deaths, compared to 8,996 new cases and 397 deaths on April 22. Russia’s Sputnik V coronavirus vaccine has an efficacy rate of 97.6 percent, its developers have said, based on data from almost 4 million people who have received the vaccine. (The Moscow Times, 04.23.21, Reuters, 04.22.21, Financial Times, 04.19.21) Here’s a link to RFE/RL’s interactive map of the virus’ spread around the world, including in Russia and the rest of post-Soviet Eurasia. For a comparison of the number and rate of change in new cases in the U.S. and Russia, visit this Russia Matters resource.
  • Putin’s annual address to parliament on April 21 was relatively low-key, focused almost exclusively on tinkering with Russia’s domestic problems and trying to address Russians’ top concerns—the country’s economic plight and their dwindling living standards. (The Moscow Times, 04.21.21)  
    • “The main thing is to ensure the growth of real incomes of citizens,” Putin said. “We must restore real incomes and ensure further growth, to achieve tangible results in the fight against poverty,” he added. (The Moscow Times, 04.21.21)  
    • Putin tied almost all the cash handouts to families and low earners with young children. The biggest measure will be a one-off payment of 10,000 rubles ($130) per child to families with school-age children. The cash will be sent in August, just one month before Russians are set to head to the polls in a closely watched election to the State Duma. (The Moscow Times, 04.21.21)  
      • Overall, the package of social protection measures announced will cost the Russian government 400 billion rubles ($5.2 billion) over the next two years, Russia’s Finance Minister Anton Siluanov said after the speech—equivalent to 0.2 percent of Russia’s GDP per year. (The Moscow Times, 04.21.21)  
    • “The opportunity to get vaccinated should be ubiquitous in order to form herd immunity by the autumn,” Putin said calling on all Russians to get vaccinated. (bne IntelliNews, 04.21.21)
    • “In 2030, the average life expectancy should be 78 years,” Putin said. (The Moscow Times, 04.21.21)  
    • Putin outlined new steps Russia would take to tackle climate change. Putin called for emissions to be reduced to less than those in the EU in the next 30 years, “so that will create thousands of new jobs.” He said that by 2024, pollution should be reduced by 20 percent. He also called for greenhouse gas emissions to be lower than those in the EU. (bne IntelliNews, 04.21.21, The Moscow Times, 04.21.21) 
    • Putin ordered a restructuring of loans regions have borrowed from the federal center, delaying repayment by 13 years at a nominal 3 percent interest rate to ease the burden and aid the country’s recovery. (bne IntelliNews, 04.21.21)
    • In what appeared to be a warning to Russia’s struggling opposition movement led by Navalny, Putin said: “The organizers of any provocations threatening our core security interests will regret their actions more than they've regretted anything in a long time.” (The Moscow Times, 04.21.21)     
  • Tens of thousands of Navalny's supporters took to the streets in major cities April 21 after his doctors warned that his health on hunger strike has become critical. Independent observers said nearly 2,000 protesters have been detained, nearly half of them in St. Petersburg, where media reported widespread use of aggressive tactics including tasers by riot police. Navalny was hospitalized April 19, weeks after beginning a hunger strike, but he then said he is ending the strike over his medical treatment in prison saying he had "achieved enough." (RFE/RL, 04.23.21, The Moscow Times, 04.22.21, Wall Street Journal, 04.19.21)
    • France, Germany and the EU on April 18 joined a growing international chorus of protest at Navalny's plight. (AFP, 04.18.21)
    • The Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe is calling on Russia to release Navalny from prison and ensure in the meantime that all his rights are respected, including "all necessary medical care." (RFE/RL, 04.22.21)
    • U.N. human rights investigators added their voices April 21 to the demand that Navalny receive better medical treatment. (New York Times, 04.21.21)
    • The Kremlin on April 19 rejected Western concerns over Navalny’s health. (The Moscow Times, 04.20.21)   
    • A Moscow court has banned the public from a hearing in a case brought by Russian prosecutors to label Navalny’s anti-corruption organization and its regional offices as "extremist" organizations. (RFE/RL, 04.20.21)
    • Russia will deport more than 100 foreign nationals for attending recent rallies in support of Navalny. (The Moscow Times/AFP, 04.22.21)
    • Since his return to Russia, his detention and the first protest that followed, mistrust in Navalny has risen to 56 percent from 50 percent, according to data from the Levada Center. Nearly half of Russians believe Navalny was rightly imprisoned and 48 percent of respondents consider his sentence to be fair. (Wall Street Journal, 04.20.21)
  • Russia has raised interest rates in a bid to stem accelerating inflation which threatens to undermine its economic recovery. The Central Bank hiked rates to 5 percent in a meeting April 23, an increase from the previous level of 4.5 percent, and the second hike following an increase at the bank’s rate-setting meeting in March. (The Moscow Times, 04.23.21)
  • Putin signed a law April 20 that will require electoral candidates who receive any amount of financial support from abroad to label themselves as “foreign agents.” (The Moscow Times, 04.20.21) 
  • The Russian government has designated the Latvia-based independent Meduza news outlet as a foreign agent—a move that will require it to label itself as such and will subject it to increased government scrutiny. (RFE/RL, 04.23.21)
  • The number of scientists and highly qualified specialists leaving Russia has risen fivefold in nearly a decade, Russia’s Academy of Sciences said April 19. Nikolai Dolgushkin, the RAS presidium’s chief scientific secretary, estimated that emigration among Russian researchers increased from 14,000 in 2012 to almost 70,000 last year. He contrasted the figures with China, the United States and other countries bolstering their ranks with tens of thousands of new researchers over the same period. (The Moscow Times, 04.21.21)                                                    
  • Polling by the Levada Center shows that 82 percent of respondents fear their loved ones and children falling ill, followed by fear of world war at 62 percent, with fear of abuse by authorities in third place with 58 percent. (Levada Center, 04.21.21) 
  • Russians worry about the "invasion of wolves" a great deal, but less than about rising food prices and police and courts’ actions in response to protests, according to monitoring of Russian social media platforms in the 1st quarter of 2021 conducted by CROS. The invasion of wolves into small Russian settlements ranked ninth in the quarterly “Index of Alarm,” while worries about rising food prices and police and courts’ actions in response to protests ranked first and second, respectively. State pressure on social media networks ranked third. (Russia Matters, 04.20.21)

Defense and aerospace:

  • “By 2024, the share of modern weapons and military equipment in the armed forces will reach nearly 76 percent, which is a very good indicator. This share in the nuclear triad will be over 88 percent before this year is out,” Putin said in his annual address to parliament April 21.  “Russia is a leader in building state-of-the-art weapons and modern nuclear weapons,” he said. (The Kremlin, 04.21.21, bne IntelliNews, 04.21.21)

Security, law-enforcement and justice:

  • A court in Russia has upheld lengthy prison sentences handed down to a couple convicted on high treason charges that stemmed from a wedding photo that included an officer of the Federal Security Service (FSB). Maria Bontsler, a lawyer for Antonina Zimina, told RFE/RL that the Moscow Court of Appeal had rejected the appeals of Zimina and her husband, Konstantin Antonets, on April 20. The couple, from Russia's Far Western Kaliningrad exclave, was found guilty of spying for Latvia in late December 2020. (RFE/RL, 04.21.21)
  • Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin said the facial recognition system rolled out in Moscow en masse in January 2020 and expanded to at least 10 other Russian cities is now used in 70 percent of crime investigations. Moscow has more than 189,000 cameras with facial recognition capabilities, as well as more than 12,300 on subway cars. (The Washington Post, 04.17.21)
  • The number of Russian officials convicted on corruption charges sank to an eight-year low during 2020, data collated by the independent Open Media news site has shown. Some 6,948 convictions were handed out for corruption last year—the lowest level since 2012, the site found. It marks a continued decline from a high of 11,499 convictions in 2015. However, the number of convictions related to large-scale bribes—in excess of one million rubles ($13,000)—has surged 12-fold since 2012, hitting almost 1,000 last year. (The Moscow Times, 04.22.21)
  • A Moscow military court on April 22 sentenced a former senior officer in the FSB to seven years in prison after he and two others were caught with tens of millions of dollars worth of cash in 2019. Kirill Cherkalin, a former lieutenant colonel in the security service’s so-called banking department, was arrested in April 2019, along with two other FSB officers, Dmitry Frolov and Andrei Vasilyev, on charges of bribe-taking and fraud. (RFE/RL, 04.23.21)
  • Security authorities in the Siberian cities of Kemerovo and Novosibirsk say they have apprehended an unspecified number of supporters of the banned Hizb ut-Tahrir Islamic group. (RFE/RL, 04.23.21)
  • The ex-wife of a Russian billionaire on April 21 won a British court case against her son, whom she accuses of helping his father hide his assets during the bitter divorce battle. The High Court of England and Wales in 2016 awarded Tatiana Akhmedova 41.5 percent of Farkhad Akhmedov's $1-billion-plus fortune. (AFP, 04.21.21)                                                  


III. Russia’s relations with other countries

Russia’s general foreign policy and relations with “far abroad” countries:

  • The surplus of Russia's foreign trade in January-February 2021 amounted to $19 billion, 26.9 percent (or $7 billion) down in comparison with the same period of 2020, according to the Russian Federal Customs Service. (TASS, 04.20.21)
  • Russia has relaxed its coronavirus entry requirements to give citizens from a list of countries, including the United Kingdom, more options to cross its borders. (The Moscow Times, 04.23.21)
  • The Colombian Air Force scrambled jet fighters to intercept Ilyushin Il-96-400VPU aircraft with tail number RA-96104 assigned to Russia’s FSB. (Defense Blog, 04.20.21)


  • Moscow has ordered its troops to start returning to their permanent bases following extensive military drills in southern Russia and annexed Crimea that heightened tensions with the West over Moscow's major military buildup near Ukraine. Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said on April 22 that the objectives of the snap inspection "have been fully achieved" and that the troops would return to their bases by May 1. The Russian Defense Ministry says it has started moving troops from Crimea to their permanent bases. "At the moment, military units and groups [in Crimea] are moving to railway stations and airports, boarding military vessels, railway platforms and military aircraft," the ministry said in an April 23 statement. (RFE/RL, 04.23.21, RFE/RL, 04.22.21)
  • Even as Russia’s troops withdraw, Moscow still has the option of ratcheting up the pressure on Ukraine in the future. Shoigu said Russia’s 41st combined arms army would leave its equipment and weapons at a base near the Ukrainian border ahead of joint military drills with Belarus this summer. (Financial Times, 04.23.21)
  • Prior to Shoigu’s announcement:
    • Russia blocked flights over annexed Crimea and the Black Sea for naval and aviation drills this week, Interfax reported April 20, citing an alert to pilots. Russia also reportedly plans to restrict maritime traffic in parts of the Black Sea for six months as it holds military maneuvers. (RFE/RL, 04.16.21, The Moscow Times, 04.20.21)   
    • Russia moved warplanes to Crimea and bases near Ukraine to an extent greater than has previously been disclosed  The photos, which were reviewed by The Wall Street Journal, show Su-30 fighters lined up in Crimea. The aircraft, which are shown in a satellite photo from April 16, hadn't been there in late March. Other Russian military units on the Crimean peninsula include airborne troops, motorized rifle and armored units, attack helicopters, smoke generators, reconnaissance drones, jamming equipment and a military hospital, the photos indicate. Those forces and the stationing of Su-34, Su-30, Su-27, Su-25 and Su-24 aircraft elsewhere in the region, which are also depicted in the photos, have strengthened Moscow's political leverage to coerce Ukraine, current and former officials say. (Wall Street Journal, 04.20.21)
    • The EU has downgraded its estimate of the number of Russian troops from 150,000 to 100,000, after EU top diplomat Josep Borrell admitted he had made a mistake at a press conference on April 19. (bne IntelliNews, 04.20.21)
    • The OSCE has earlier announced that its Special Monitoring Mission to Ukraine has spotted several dozen multiple launch rocket systems and howitzers in the rebel-controlled Luhansk region. (Defense Blog, 04.21.21)
    • Data acquired by plane-tracking site FlightRadar confirms redeployment of at least two Russian A-50 Aerial Early Warning and Control aircraft to the country’s western border. (Defense Blog, 04.18.21)
  • Western powers’ reluctance to match Putin’s show of force on Ukraine’s eastern border may make Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s search for an alternative resolution to the conflict less tenable, Alyona Getmanchuk, director of Kyiv-based think-tank New Europe Center, said. “[The troop withdrawal] strengthens an argument that Putin didn’t have an intention to invade but was using his trademark saber-rattling tactics in order to reach some diplomatic gains,” Getmanchuk said. (Financial Times, 04.23.21)
  • Ukrainian Army positions came under fire early on April 19 from territory controlled by Russia-backed separatists near Horlivka in eastern Ukraine. The army said in a statement that one Ukrainian soldier was killed and another wounded after their positions were attacked with automatic grenade launchers on April 18. (RFE/RL, 04.19.21)
  • Oleksandr Danylyukat of the Kyiv-based Center for Defense Reform estimates Ukraine has about 250,000 active servicemen (the International Institute for Strategic Studies estimates 209,000) and 1 million reservists, 250,000 of which have combat experience, compared with just 60,000 battle-ready soldiers in 2014. (Financial Times, 04.22.21)
  • The U.S. top commander in Europe described the threat of a Russian invasion of Ukraine in the coming weeks as between “low and medium.” Testifying April 22 before the House Armed Services Committee, Air Force Gen. Tod Wolters said whether the threat will continue to increase after that “depends on the disposition of the forces.” (USNI, 04.15.21)
  • The U.S. expressed its "deep concern" over Russia's plans to block foreign naval ships and other vessels in parts of the Black Sea, U.S. State Department spokesman Ned Price said. "This represents yet another unprovoked escalation in Moscow’s ongoing campaign to undermine and destabilize Ukraine," Price said. (bne IntelliNews, 04.20.21)
  • The U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee has unanimously advanced a bill to deliver military assistance to Ukraine, including lethal weapons, to help the country counter Russian aggression. The Ukraine Security Partnership Act would provide Ukraine with up to $300 million per year in military assistance until 2026, $150 million of which is subject to conditions. It needs to be passed by both the House and Senate and be signed by Biden to become law. (RFE/RL, 04.22.21)
  • Russia should ensure de-escalation of tensions near its borders with Ukraine, said Macron. "The situation today and the level of tension at the border is absolutely counterproductive and unacceptable," he said in an interview with CBS. "As far as Ukraine is concerned, we need to speed up the political dialogue. And Europe, the United States—all of us—must make it clear to Russia that we do not want to see another military operation on Ukrainian territory," added Macron. (Interfax, 04.19.21)
  • British warships will sail for the Black Sea in May amid rising tensions between Ukraine and Russia, the Sunday Times newspaper reported, citing senior naval sources. The deployment is aimed at showing solidarity with Ukraine and Britain's NATO allies, the newspaper reported. (Reuters, 04.18.21)
  • Czech police have detained five of its nationals suspected of fighting alongside pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine. (The Moscow Times, 04.21.21)                                                   
  • Zelensky on April 20 invited Putin to meet in war-torn eastern Ukraine, stressing that millions of lives were at stake from fresh fighting in the separatist conflict. “Does Ukraine want war? No. Is it ready for it? Yes,” Zelensky said. “Our principle is simple: Ukraine does not start a war first, but Ukraine always stands to the last man.” (The Moscow Times, 04.20.21, New York Times, 04.21.21)
    • Putin said April 22 Zelensky was welcome in Moscow "any time" but stressed that he should discuss the conflict in eastern Ukraine with separatists directly. "If we are talking about bilateral relations, then, by all means, we are ready to welcome the president of Ukraine at any time that is convenient for him," Putin said. (AFP, 04.23.21)
  • Talks between top advisers to the leaders of Ukraine, Russia, France and Germany to cool tensions in eastern Ukraine yielded few tangible results, diplomats said April 19. Following the political advisers meeting, a Ukrainian statement said all sides reaffirmed their commitment to reaching a cease-fire in eastern Ukraine and would continue to work on the issue. (RFE/RL, 04.19.21)
  • In a meeting with EU foreign ministers, Ukraine’s top diplomat Dmytro Kuleba said he had called for a tough new package of sanctions, including the expulsion of Russian banks from the SWIFT network. (The Moscow Times, 04.22.21)
  • A Russian national suspected of spying for Ukraine has been arrested in Crimea. (RFE/RL, 04.22.21)
  • Russia has announced that it has expelled a Ukrainian consul in St. Petersburg, Oleksandr Sosoniuk, after detaining the diplomat on suspicion of trying to obtain classified information. (RFE/RL, 04.17.21)

Russia's other post-Soviet neighbors:

  • Belarusian strongman Alexander Lukashenko has claimed he was the target of a U.S.-backed assassination plot, and Russian intelligence said two Belarusians detained in Moscow this week were allegedly linked to the plot. The two were identified as Yuras Zyankovich, a Belarusian-born lawyer who also holds U.S. citizenship, and Alexander Fyaduta. In its announcement April 17, the FSB also claimed that the alleged plotters were advised in the United States and Poland. (RFE/RL, 04.18.21)
    • Putin did not discuss anticipated unification between Russia and Belarus during late-night talks with Lukashenko, the Kremlin said April 23. “No, the merger of the states into one” was not discussed, Peskov said. “As for integration, it’s an ongoing process, a living mechanism,” Peskov said. (The Moscow Times, 04.23.21)                                             
    • “The practice of staging coups d’état and planning political assassinations, including those of high-ranking officials—well, this goes too far. This is beyond any limits,” Putin said in reference to the alleged plot against Lukashanko in his annual address to parliament April 21. (The Kremlin, 04.21.21)
    • The U.S. has nothing to do with any plots against Lukashenko and any suggestion otherwise is "absolutely untrue," a U.S. State Department official said. "We have seen reports in Russian state media of a supposed plot against Alexander Lukashenko, as well as his direct claims to media. Any suggestion that the U.S. government was behind or involved in an assassination attempt on Lukashenko is absolutely untrue," he said. (TASS, 04.18.21)
    • Belarusian opposition leader Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya said April 18 that the assassination allegation appears to be an act of "provocation" by Russian and Belarusian secret services. (RFE/RL, 04.18.21)
  • The new U.S. ambassador to Belarus, Julie Fisher, has met with Tsikhanouskaya, just ahead of talks between Lukashenko and Putin. The meeting took place April 21 in Vilnius. (RFE/RL, 04.22.21)
  • The U.S. State Department said April 19 it would not renew a special license authorizing transactions with nine state-owned Belarusian companies. The U.S. Treasury Department first issued the license to the nine state-owned companies in 2015. They include fertilizer giant Grodno Azot, oil firm Belneftekhim and oil refiner Naftan. (RFE/RL, 04.19.21)
  • Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty has reiterated its call for Belarusian authorities to release Ihar Losik, a popular blogger and RFE/RL consultant, as he marked his 300th day in detention on charges widely considered to have been trumped-up. (RFE/RL, 04.21.21)
  • At least two U.S. Army RC-12X Guardrail aircraft equipped with a specialized system to provide multi-mission electronic surveillance support have conducted what appears to be a spy mission in Lithuania near the border with Belarus, according to FlightRadar 24. (Defense Blog, 04.22.21)
  • Belarus is stepping up military activity across the country amid deteriorating relations with neighboring countries and NATO. Hundreds of videos are circulating on social media showing the movement of heavy military vehicles and troops. (Defense Blog, 04.20.21)
  • European Council President Charles Michel has declared Georgia’s political crisis “over,” but the main opposition is refusing to join an EU-mediated deal until its chairman is released from pretrial detention. Salome Samadashvili, the only the United National Movement (UNM) leader to sign the agreement, suggested earlier the party would join when UNM Chairman Nika Melia is released from jail. Under the EU-brokered deal, early parliamentary elections will be called in 2022 if Georgian Dream gets less than 43 percent in upcoming local elections. (RFE/RL, 04.21.21)
  • Biden is likely to recognize the massacre of Armenians by the Ottoman Empire during World War I as genocide, media reports say, amid calls for the move by more than 100 U.S. lawmakers. Biden is expected to use the word "genocide" as part of a statement on April 24 when annual Armenian Genocide Remembrance Day commemorations are held around the world. (RFE/RL, 04.22.21)
  • “As you know, Russia played the main role in stopping the armed conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh,” Putin said in his annual address to parliament April 21. (The Kremlin, 04.21.21)
  • A report in the Russian newspaper RBK said there were discussions around Azerbaijan participating in an upcoming meeting of the Eurasian Economic Union, the Russia-led trade bloc. (Eurasianet, 04.18.21)
  • The Twitter account for Caucasus Heritage Watch on April 19 shared satellite images apparently showing several vehicles parked next to the Vankasar Church in Azerbaijan’s Agdam district. The images are hard to discern but were widely shared on Twitter amid fears they may show a first step in the “erasure” of the ancient Christian monument. (RFE/RL, 04.21.21)
  • Earnings sent home by Central Asian workers in Russia dropped 25 percent in the first half of 2020 when the coronavirus first took hold, but have since begun to rise again, according to the IMF. (Financial Times, 04.19.21)
  • Unprecedented crackdowns on reporters covering protests in Belarus and the obstruction of reporting on the war over Nagorno-Karabakh were among the factors that kept Eastern Europe and Central Asia at the bottom of the 2021 World Press Freedom Index compiled by Reporters Without Borders. Russia fell one spot to 150 in the ranking of 180 countries. (RFE/RL, 04.20.21)


IV. Quoteworthy