Russia in Review, Aug. 2-9, 2019

This Week’s Highlights:

  • At least six victims of a military site explosion in northern Russia have allegedly been taken to Moscow with radiation exposure and then reportedly transported in sealed ambulances with drivers in hazmat suits along Moscow streets to a Moscow hospital, after a mysterious blast at a missile testing range near Nyonoksa in the Arkhangelsk region caused radiation to briefly surge to 20 times above normal, prompting local residents to stock up on iodine, according to several news outlets including The Moscow Times, Reuters and Baza.
  • A new poll by state-owned pollster Russian Public Opinion Research Center showed that 11 percent of respondents believe ISIS poses the “greatest threat to Russia related to use of nuclear weapons,” while 60 percent of respondents believe the U.S. poses the greatest threat and 13 percent believe it is China. The poll showed that 52 percent of Russians are concerned there might be a nuclear war.
  • Stephen Biegun, the chief U.S. negotiator with North Korea, who has a background in Russian affairs and served as a vice president of Ford, may replace Jon Huntsman as U.S. ambassador to Moscow when Huntsman steps down on Oct. 3, according to the Wall Street Journal and RFE/RL.
  • Vladimir Putin’s domestic support is down a third since 2017 after years of economic malaise, according to Financial Times. Real incomes have fallen for five of the past six years, Financial Times reports, while consumer lending has exploded—The New York Times reports outstanding average debt per person has reached about $3,300. Russia’s economy minister warned last month that the country is facing a recession in 2021 that could see GDP shrink by 3 percent on a surge in loan defaults, according to The Moscow Times.
  • According to the Levada Center, 29 percent of Russian respondents described late 1970s-early 1980s Soviet rule as “close to people” while 22 percent called it “just” and 20% “legitimate,” The Moscow Times reports. When asked to characterize Russia's current leadership, 41 percent called it “criminal and corrupt” and 31 percent called it “distant from the people and alien.” Another 24 percent called the regime “bureaucratic,” 19 percent “shortsighted” and 15 percent “inconsistent.” 

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

Nuclear security and safety:

  • At least six victims of a military site explosion in northern Russia have allegedly been taken to Moscow with radiation exposure and then reportedly transported in sealed ambulances with drivers in hazmat suits along Moscow streets to a Moscow hospital, after a mysterious blast at a weapons testing range near Nyonoksa in the Arkhangelsk region. Authorities in a nearby city reported a brief spike in radiation on Aug. 8 when a rocket engine blew up at the site, killing two and injuring six. Greenpeace cited data from the Emergency Situations Ministry that it said showed radiation levels had risen 20 times above the normal level in Severodvinsk, around 30 kilometers from Nyonoksa. Residents of Severodvinsk and Arkhangelsk are stocking up on iodine that is used to reduce the effects of radiation exposure. (The Moscow Times, 08.09.19, Reuters, 08.09.19, Russia Matters, 08.09.19)
  • State-owned Russian Public Opinion Research Center released on Aug. 6 results of a national poll, which showed that 11 percent of respondents believe ISIS poses the “greatest threat to Russia related to use of nuclear weapons,” while 60 percent of respondents believe the U.S. poses the greatest threat and 13 percent believe it is China. Multiple answers were allowed. The poll showed that 52 percent of Russians are concerned there might be a nuclear war. (Russia Matters, 08.06.19)
  • Russia is preparing to send its first floating nuclear plant on a 5,000-kilometer journey to provide electricity to a remote resource-rich region, drawing comparisons to past nuclear disasters and concerns over plans to sell the technology to other countries. (The Moscow Times, 08.05.19)
  • A contract has been signed between SSE Chernobyl NPP and construction company Ukrbudmontazh for the creation of infrastructure for the early dismantling of the Shelter Object. This structure, widely known as the “sarcophagus,” was hastily constructed over the remains of the destroyed reactor of unit four in the weeks after the 1986 accident. (World Nuclear News, 08.05.19)

North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs:

  • No significant developments.

Iran’s nuclear program and related issues:

  • No significant developments.

New Cold War/saber rattling:

  • No significant developments.

Military issues, including NATO-Russia relations:

  • Russia's annexation of Crimea in 2014 was the result of increased "great power competition," NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said Aug. 5. (RFE/RL, 08.06.19)
  • Russia's Bal coastal missile system was moved from its permanent deployment location to the Sredny Peninsula on the Barents Sea coast. During blue-sky days, the coast of the Sredny Peninsula is visible from Vardø, the Norwegian town known for housing the Globus radar system operated by the country’s intelligence service. (Barents Observer, 08.08.19)
  • A pair of U.S. F-22 Raptors, two Canadian CF-18s, a U.S. E-3 Sentry AWACS supported by a U.S. KC-135 Stratotanker and C-130 tanker under North American Aerospace Defense Command control intercepted two Russian Tu-95 Bear H bombers over the arctic Beaufort Sea’s international air space on Aug. 8. (The Aviationist, 08.08.19)

Missile defense:

  • No significant developments.

Nuclear arms control:

  • Russian President Vladimir Putin says Russia would respond in kind if the U.S. develops short- and intermediate-range, land-based nuclear missiles following the demise of the INF Treaty. "If Russia obtains reliable information whereby the U.S. completes the development of these systems and starts to produce them, Russia will have no option other than to engage in a full-scale effort to develop similar missiles," Putin said in a statement on Aug. 5. Putin also condemned the U.S. exit from the INF Treaty “in a unilateral way and under a far-fetched reason” and called for urgent arms control talks to prevent a chaotic arms race. (RFE/RL, 08.05.19, AP, 08.05.19, Wall Street Journal, 08.05.19)
  • A U.S. official said U.S. President Donald Trump had raised the idea of a trilateral arms control pact when he met Chinese President Xi Jinping and Russian President Vladimir Putin at the G20 in June. “I’ve discussed it with President Putin. I’ve also discussed it with China,” Trump said on Aug. 2. “China was very, very excited about talking about it, and so is Russia. I think we’ll have a deal at some point.” Despite the optimistic comments from Trump, however, Beijing has shown no interest. (Financial Times, 08.03.19)
  • U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper said Aug. 3 that he was in favor of deploying ground-based missiles to Asia, a day after the U.S. formally pulled out of INF. (New York Times, 08.04.19)
  • China warned it would “not stand idly by” if the U.S. deployed ground-based missiles to Asia, as a bruising trade war and strained relations fueled fears of an arms race between Beijing, Washington and Moscow. A Chinese arms control official, Fu Cong, did not specify what countermeasures China would take in response to a deployment. He did say, though, that China had “no interest” in arms control talks with the U.S. and Russia—a step toward Trump’s ambition of a three-way nuclear accord. (New York Times, 08.06.19)


  • "Despite losing its territorial 'caliphate,' the Islamic State … solidified its insurgent capabilities in Iraq and was resurging in Syria," writes acting Defense Department inspector general Glenn Fine. "The reduction of U.S. forces has decreased the support available for Syrian partner forces at a time when their forces need more training and equipping to respond to the ISIS resurgence." (The Washington Post, 08.08.19)
  • U.S. President Donald Trump has said he will nominate Joseph Maguire, director of the National Counterterrorism Center, to be his next acting director of national intelligence. (RFE/RL, 08.09.19)
  • The last group of 30 Russian children will be evacuated from Iraq before the end of September, Children’s Ombudsperson Anna Kuznetsova said. (TASS, 08.06.19)

Conflict in Syria:

  • At least four civilians have been wounded in a rocket attack on Russia’s military base in Syria, the Russian Defense Ministry has said. The rebels launched three rockets from the buffer zone in Idlib toward Russia’s Khmeimim airbase in the nearby province of Latakia, the Defense Ministry said in a daily bulletin Aug. 5. (The Moscow Times, 08.05.19)
  • The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said Syrian government air raids in Idlib resumed and Russian planes joined in, too. Russian jets pounded the western edge of the enclave. (Al Jazeera, 08.05.19)
  • The Russian S-400 missile system has been deactivated in the Syrian city of Masyaf, likely due to the recent installation of Syria’s S-300 system nearby. (AlmasDarNews, 08.02.19)
  • A U.S. State Department statement on Aug. 3 said U.S. officials “commend efforts by Turkey and Russia working together to restore the cease-fire they agreed in [the Russian resort of] Sochi in September 2018.” (RFE/RL, 08.04.19)

Cyber security:

  • No significant developments.

Elections interference:

  • Major Wall Street banks have given congressional committees investigating U.S. President Donald Trump thousands of pages of documents related to Russians who may have had dealings with Trump, his family or his business, people familiar with the congressional probes said. (Wall Street Journal, 08.08.19)

Energy exports:

  • Russia’s crude oil and condensate output from January to July grew by 2 percent year on year to more than 325 million tons (11.2 million barrels per day), according to data published by the Russian Energy Ministry. (bne IntelliNews, 08.06.19)
  • Belarus will raise the oil transit tariff by 3.7 percent after its state petrochemical firm Belneftekhim agreed the price increase with Moscow, the company said in a statement. (RFE/RL, 08.06.19)
  • Saudi Energy Minister Khalid al-Falih stressed in talks with his Russian counterpart that Riyadh would continue to comply with agreed oil output cuts through at least the first three months of 2020. (RFE/RL, 08.04.19)

Bilateral economic ties:

  • No significant developments.

Other bilateral issues:

  • Jon Huntsman, the U.S. ambassador to Moscow, is on Oct. 3 stepping down from his position to return to the U.S., U.S. media are reporting, citing a letter written to U.S. President Donald Trump. It isn't clear who might succeed Huntsman as ambassador. Potential candidates include Stephen Biegun, the chief U.S. negotiator with North Korea, who has a background in Russian affairs and served as a vice president of Ford, which has been involved in business in the country. (Wall Street Journal, 08.09.19, RFE/RL, 08.06.19)  
  • The U.S. State Department has detailed new sanctions imposed on Russia for its alleged involvement in the nerve agent attack on former Russian spy Sergei Skripal. Trump signed an executive order on Aug. 1 and the measures will take effect following a 15-day congressional notification period and remain in place for a minimum of 12 months. Economists said the new sanctions won’t have much of an impact as Russia has foreign currency and gold reserves exceeding $500 billion, precluding the need for borrowing. (RFE/RL, 08.03.19)
  • The Trump administration on Aug. 6 warned Russia, China and "any persons" who continue supporting Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro that it is prepared to sanction them as part of a new economic blockade of Venezuela. (The Washington Post, 08.06.19)
  • Russia’s state-owned oil company Rosneft has become the last major supplier of petrol to Venezuela, propping up Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro’s regime as the U.S. intensifies economic pressure on Caracas. (Financial Times, 08.08.19)
  • Russia has summoned a senior U.S. diplomat after accusing the U.S. State Department of meddling in the country’s internal affairs by publishing a map on social media showing the proposed route of an opposition protest in the Russian capital on Aug. 3. In a statement on Aug. 9, the Russian Foreign Ministry said it had summoned Tim Richardson from the U.S. Embassy over the matter. (RFE/RL, 08.09.19)
  • Twitter has paid a 3,000 ruble ($47) fine for breaking Russia’s internet law requiring foreign internet companies to keep data about their users on servers physically located in Russia. (bne IntelliNews, 08.02.19)
  • A 58-year-old Russian citizen has been charged in the U.S. with illegally exporting gun parts to Russia and faces up to 20 years in prison if found guilty. The U.S. Attorney's Office for the Eastern District of New York identified the suspect as Vladimir Kuznetsov, a U.S. Green Card holder, who has lived in the U.S. since 2011. (RFE/RL, 08.07.19)

II. Russia’s domestic news

Politics, economy and energy:

  • Russian President Vladimir Putin’s domestic support is foundering—down a third since 2017—after years of economic malaise that have left average Russians feeling poorer and less confident about their future. Real incomes have fallen for five of the past six years, and are about 10 percent lower than in 2013. As real disposable income for Russians continues to fall, personal consumer lending has exploded, topping around $130 billion last year, up 46 percent compared with 2017. Outstanding average debt per person has reached about $3,300, according to the National Association of Professional Collection Agencies. Low-income households spend an average of 8 percent of their monthly incomes on debt payment, according to the central bank. Russia’s economy minister warned last month that the country is facing a recession in 2021 that could see gross domestic product shrink by 3 percent on a surge in loan defaults. (Financial Times, 08.08.19, Wall Street Journal, 08.04.19, New York Times, 08.05.19)
  • Twenty-six percent of Russian children under the age of 18 lived on less than 10,000 rubles ($150) per month in 2017, the Russia’s State Statistics Service said. That’s double the 13.2 percent of Russia’s overall population, or 19.4 million people, who lived below the poverty line that year. (RFE/RL, 08.06.19)
  • According to Levada’s results published Aug. 5, 29 percent of Russian respondents described late 1970s-early 1980s Soviet rule as “close to people” when offered a list of choices. A quarter of the respondents said Soviet rule was “strong and enduring,” 22 percent called it “just” and 20 percent “legitimate.” When asked to characterize Russia's current leadership, 41 percent called it “criminal and corrupt” and 31 percent called it “distant from the people and alien.” Another 24 percent called the regime “bureaucratic,” 19 percent “shortsighted” and 15 percent “inconsistent.” (The Moscow Times, 08.05.19)
  • Russia's National Welfare Fund doubled in July, increasing by 4.105 trillion rubles, to 7.868 trillion rubles, and in dollars terms by $64.479 billion, to $124.137 billion, Russia’s Finance Ministry reported Aug. 2. As of July 1, 2019, the amount of the fund was 3.763 trillion rubles, equivalent to $59.658 billion. (bne IntelliNews, 08.04.19)
  • Inward FDI to Russia over 2014-2018 averaged 1.3 percent of GDP, the lowest levels for 20 years when reinvestment is factored in, and even Russians are reluctant to invest in their own country. (bne IntelliNews, 08.09.19)
  • Russian car market continued to contract in July, with the sales of new passenger cars and light commercial vehicles down by 2.4 percent to 0.14 million units. (bne IntelliNews, 08.06.19)
  • Russia’s labor force has declined for the third year straight, totaling 75 million people of working age during the first three months of 2019, researchers say. The year-on-year decline is an eightfold increase from the loss of 100,000 working-age Russians in all of 2018, according to RANEPA and the Gaidar Institute. (The Moscow Times, 08.06.19)
  • Russia has said it will build two new nuclear icebreakers in a bid to make a rapidly melting trade route through the Arctic accessible to shipping traffic on a year-round basis. (Bellona, 08.07.19)
  • Nine men have been placed in pre-trial detention while one is wanted on suspicion of taking part in “mass unrest” by protesting in support of opposition candidates barred from running in Moscow’s local elections. Police detained more than 2,000 people overall during protests on July 27 and Aug. 3 in central Moscow, using violence in several cases, while courts have ordered the arrests of more than 100 people over the protests. Authorities opened criminal proceedings over the July 27 protest, saying it had identified 10 key suspects in what it said was mass civil unrest that day. The charges of participating in mass civil unrest, which all nine of those detained have denied, carry a maximum prison sentence of eight years. (The Moscow Times, 08.06.19)
  • Russian lawmakers are moving to further restrict the locations where citizens will be allowed to protest following weeks of demonstrations over Moscow authorities’ refusal to allow the opposition to run for local office. (The Moscow Times, 08.09.19)
  • Russian authorities ordered mobile operators to cut access to mobile data services during last weekend's opposition protests in Moscow, marking the first documented case in Moscow's history, Russia’s Internet Protection Society NGO has said. (The Moscow Times, 08.07.19)
  • The Moscow city prosecutor's office wants to revoke the parental rights of a couple that brought their 1-year-old son to an unsanctioned rally in front of the Moscow mayor's office on July 27. (RFE/RL, 08.06.19)
  • Independent pollster Levada Center found that 37 percent of Muscovites supported the protests, 27 percent viewed them negatively and 30 percent were neutral. Those results differ substantially from state-owned pollster VTsIOM’s poll released on Aug. 2 that found 70 percent of Russians said the authorities should quell the protests. The Levada Center survey was conducted from July 26 to July 31 among 1,500 Muscovites. The VTsIOM poll was conducted on July 29, with 1,600 people aged 18 and above interviewed over the phone. (bne Intellinews, 08.07.19)
  • Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov said that Imam Shamil, an ethnic Avar from Daghestan, had along with his supporters forced ethnic Chechens to fight against Russia for almost 20 years, before giving in and becoming a member of the Russian gentry. As a result, Kadyrov claimed, Shamil had "provoked the annihilation of the Chechen people." "What was it if not terrorism against the Chechen people?" Kadyrov said. (RFE/RL, 08.09.19)

Defense and aerospace:

  • The U.S. Army has published a handbook on how to defeat Russia’s hybrid-warfare strategy. The Russian New Generation Warfare Handbook, which recently released over the Internet, concludes that Russian strategy is based on achieving regime change through teaming up with local proxy forces, rather than conventional military victory by Russian troops. (The National Interest, 08.03.19)
  • The Russian Defense Ministry on Aug. 7 released a video showing the Okhotnik (Hunter) taking off, performing maneuvers and landing. The ministry has said that the drone, which has advanced reconnaissance and stealth capabilities, first flew for 20 minutes on Aug. 3. (AP, 08.07.19)

Security, law-enforcement and justice:

  • The number of investigated crimes at the 10 key Russian law enforcement and security agencies increased by 8.4 percent from 6,101 in 2017, while the number of investigations among all law enforcement officials decreased by more than 40 percent in 2017-18. (The Moscow Times, 08.07.19)
  • A newly formed Federal Security Service cybersecurity branch will gain the power to block websites without a court order, Russia’s national domain coordinator announced Aug. 6. (The Moscow Times, 08.06.19)

III. Foreign affairs, trade and investment

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

  • Gianluca Savoini, aide to Italy's deputy prime minister Matteo Salvini, at the center of accusations that the ruling League party sought millions of euros via a secret Russian oil deal, flew back-and-forth to Moscow last year, BuzzFeed said on Aug. 8. (Reuters, 08.09.19)
  • A U.N. report released Aug. 5 found countries including North Korea, Russia, China and India supplied arms to Myanmar's military in recent years, including weapons used in a crackdown against Rohingya Muslims that has been described as genocidal. (The Washington Post, 08.05.19)
  • Japan has rebuked Russia’s planned military exercises on a Pacific island claimed by both countries in the latest row over the territory that has kept the countries from signing a formal peace agreement marking the end of World War II. Russia’s Foreign Ministry on Aug. 9 accused Japan of “illegally” including Pacific islands claimed by both Moscow and Tokyo in a map of the Olympics the Japanese capital will host next year. (The Moscow Times, 08.05.19, The Moscow Times, 08.09.19)


  • China's leaders have intensively studied the collapse of the Soviet Union—Chinese President Xi Jinping even had top officials watch a four-part documentary about it soon after he came into office—and concluded that Mikhail Gorbachev made a strategic error by opting to liberalize rather than tighten political controls. (The Washington Post, 08.04.19)
  • The New Development Bank, a lender owned by Brazil, India, Russia, China and South Africa, is aiming to almost double its lending this year and shift its loan book away from the U.S. dollar to emphasize lending in local currencies. (Financial Times, 08.06.19)
  • U.S. company Archer Daniels Midland Co., after reporting a 58.5 percent decline in quarterly earnings last week, warned that China is becoming more comfortable buying food elsewhere, recently approving poultry imports from Russia and pork shipments from Argentina. (Wall Street Journal, 08.06.19)


  • Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelenskiy says he has spoken with his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, after four Ukrainian soldiers were killed in shelling in eastern Ukraine. "I called him urgently. I told him that this brings us no closer to peace," Zelenskiy said during a news briefing in Kiev, adding that he had urged Putin to ask the Moscow-backed separatists to "stop killing our people." He also said Putin had promised him something, details of which would be disclosed later. (RFE/RL, 08.07.19)
  • A senior U.S. official says Ukraine has requested to purchase more Javelin anti-tank missiles from the U.S., a move that is likely to anger Moscow. Comments by William Taylor, charge d'affaires of the U.S. Embassy in Kiev, are the first confirmation of Ukraine's desire to add to its stock of 210 Javelin missiles and 37 launchers that the U.S. provided in April 2018. (RFE/RL, 08.05.19)
  • Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy has appointed Lt. Gen. Volodymyr Kravchenko to lead the Joint Forces Operation in eastern Ukraine. (RFE/RL, 08.05.19)      
  • Ukraine’s SBU security service says it has detained a Russian man on suspicion of preparing an act of sabotage at a “strategically important military site” in the central Ukrainian city of Cherkasy. (RFE/RL, 08.09.19)
  • The U.S. has reportedly proposed arranging a bilateral meeting between U.S. Special Representative for Ukraine Kurt Volker and Russian presidential aide Vladislav Surkov. (Interfax, 08.06.19)
  • American attorney Marcus Cohen, who hired a Washington lobbying firm to elevate the profile of Ukraine's newly elected president during his campaign, has told RFE/RL in an exclusive interview that he paid nearly $70,000 for the work out of his own pocket—and out of good will toward Volodymyr Zelenskiy. (RFE/RL, 08.09.19)
  • Ali Soufan, a former FBI special agent and the author of ''Anatomy of Terror,'' said Ukraine was now a global gathering place for white supremacists, much as Afghanistan was for jihadis in the 1980s. (New York Times, 08.06.19)
  • A Ukrainian court has ruled in favor of C14, which takes its name from a 14-word phrase used by white supremacists, whose own members have admitted to joining it because of its neo-Nazi ideology, and which has been labeled a "nationalist hate group" by the U.S. State Department. C14 sued independent Hromadske TV outlet claiming it damaged its reputation when it labeled it as "neo-Nazi" and the Kiev City Commercial Court decided that the outlet could not provide sufficient evidence to support its claim. (RFE/RL, 08.06.19)
  • Ukraine and Turkey are considering a free trade agreement that could see two-way commerce more than double to $10 billion yearly, a statement says on the Ukrainian presidential website. (RFE/RL, 08.08.19)
  • Ukraine's international reserves increased by 5.8 percent month-on-month to $21.84 billion in July following a 6.4 percent month-on-month growth in June, according to the National Bank of Ukraine. The result was mainly attributed to the central bank's interventions in the interbank foreign exchange market, spending a total of $1.3 billion. (bne IntelliNews, 08.07.19)
  • Ihor Kolomoyskiy, the Ukrainian billionaire with ties to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, says he plans on being "a nuisance for many" in the country for at least the next five years. (RFE/RL, 08.07.19)

Russia’s other post-Soviet neighbors:

  • Police in Kyrgyzstan detained the Central Asian nation’s former president on Aug. 8 after violent clashes with his supporters, a day after a previous attempt to arrest him left one police officer dead and nearly 80 other people wounded. The former president, Almazbek Atambayev, who was in office from 2011 to 2017, has accused his successor and onetime protégé, Sooronbay Jeenbekov, of fabricating criminal charges against him to stifle criticism. Atambayev had urged his supporters to rally on Aug. 8 in the capital, Bishkek, to demand Jeenbekov’s resignation. (New York Times, 08.09.19)
  • Dozens of people have been injured in clashes between local residents and workers from a Chinese company at a gold mine in eastern Kyrgyzstan. The Kyrgyz Health Ministry said on Aug. 6 that 20 Chinese workers had been hospitalized with different injuries after the conflict. (RFE/RL, 08.06.19)
  • Following rumors that suggested the president of Turkmenistan, Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov, had died while in office, the strongman ruler has released footage that appears to show he is not only very much alive, but also driving a rally car in circles near the "Gates of Hell." (The Washington Post, 08.05.19)
  • The U.S., Belgium, Estonia, France, Germany, Poland and Britain have marked the 11th anniversary of the five-day war between Russia and Georgia and urged Moscow to withdraw its military forces to the positions held before hostilities broke out. (RFE/RL, 08.09.19)
  • Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan has visited Nagorno-Karabakh and called for the reunification of Armenia with Karabakh. The forceful appeal indicated that Pashinyan is taking a harder line on Karabakh even as he has made efforts to revive the negotiations with Azerbaijan over settling the conflict. (Eurasianet, 08.06.19)

IV. Quoteworthy

  • No significant developments.