Russia in Review, Dec. 14-21, 2018
Dear readers: Please be advised that the Russia in Review news digest will not come out on Dec. 28 due to Harvard’s winter holidays. We look forward to resuming publication on Jan. 4 and wish you all the best in the New Year!
This Week’s Highlights:
- Nikkei has learned that Russia is urging China to join a new nuclear deal in the works with the U.S., and Beijing has apparently not rejected the idea.
- U.S. President Donald Trump announced Dec. 19 that he was pulling all U.S. troops out of Syria, declaring the Islamic State defeated. "If the United States has decided to withdraw its contingent—that is the right move,” Russian President Vladimir Putin told his annual press conference, according to The Moscow Times. “We’ve delivered a serious blow against [Islamic State] in Syria… In that regard, Donald [Trump] is right,” Putin said.
- Russian President Vladimir Putin said at his annual press conference he did not know whether he would meet U.S. President Donald Trump in the foreseeable future. “We will reach the bottom of our relationship and understand that we need to rise, we need to push off from this bottom, sip fresh air and with a clear head think about how to live in the future,” Putin said, according to Financial Times.
- U.S. Treasury Department officials used a Gmail back channel with the Russian government as the Kremlin sought sensitive financial information on its enemies in America and across the globe, Buzzfeed reports, including a request for sensitive documents on Dirk, Edward, and Daniel Ziff, billionaire investors who had run afoul of the Kremlin.
- Putin revealed at a meeting with Russian Defense Ministry leadership that Chinese and Mongolian military units acted under single combat rules with Russian units during Vostok-2018 wargames, according to TASS.
- In an interview published on Dec. 17, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Moscow could hand Japan the two smaller islands of the disputed Kuril Islands if Tokyo "recognizes the results" of World War II, RFE/RL reports. At his annual press conference, Russian President Vladimir Putin said, “We aim and will sincerely aim at reaching a peace treaty with Japan,” according to The Moscow Times.
I. U.S. and Russian priorities for the bilateral agenda
Nuclear security and safety:
- No significant developments.
North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs:
- No significant developments.
Iran’s nuclear program and related issues:
- No significant developments.
Military issues, including NATO-Russia relations:
- U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis will be leaving his post early next year, saying in his resignation letter that his views are not fully "aligned" with U.S. President Donald Trump and citing policies toward Russia and China as among the differences. Konstantin Kosachev, chairman of the foreign affairs committee for Russia’s upper house of parliament, claimed on his Facebook page that Mattis was leaving because his position toward Russia resembles that of the Democratic Party. (RFE/RL, 12.21.18, Newsweek, 12.21.18)
- U.S. President Donald Trump has ordered the establishment of a space command that will oversee the country's military operations in space. (RFE/RL, 12.18.18)
- No significant developments.
Nuclear arms control:
- “They are withdrawing from the INF Treaty . . . it is very difficult to imagine how the situation will develop further. And if these missiles appear in Europe, what should we do? Of course, we’ll have to ensure our own security,” Russian President Vladimir Putin told his annual press conference. “The same thing with [New START]. In 2021 it expires. No negotiations have yet been conducted on this issue,” he said. “We are essentially witnessing the breakdown of the international order of arms control,” he said. (Financial Times, 12.20.18, The Moscow Times, 12.20.18)
- Russian President Vladimir Putin on Dec. 18 denied his country was in violation of the INF agreement, but said it had developed powerful airborne and sea-based cruise missiles and could easily roll out land-based missiles if Washington walked away from the pact. (Reuters, 12.18.18)
- Russian President Vladimir Putin believes the problem with the INF Treaty is that other countries with intermediate and shorter-range missiles are not party to the treaty. "Why don’t we negotiate that they join the treaty or discuss the parameters of a new treaty?" Putin asked. (TASS, 12.18.18)
- Russia is urging China to take part in a new nuclear deal in the works with the U.S., Nikkei has learned, as the world's two largest nuclear powers spar over the future of the INF Treaty that Beijing is not a party to. Moscow suggested in late October that China attend negotiations for the deal. Beijing apparently has not rejected the idea. (Nikkei, 12.14.18)
- Russian President Vladimir Putin told the Russian Defense Ministry collegium on Dec. 18 that the INF Treaty was a unilateral disarmament of the Soviet Union and that he does not understand why the deal was made in the first place. (Interfax, 12.18.18)
- No significant developments.
Conflict in Syria:
- In a surprise announcement, U.S. President Donald Trump declared Dec. 19 that he was pulling all 2,000 U.S. troops out of Syria, declaring the Islamic State had been vanquished. "If the United States has decided to withdraw its contingent [from Syria]—that is the right move,” Russian President Vladimir Putin told his annual press conference on Dec. 20. “We’ve delivered a serious blow against [Islamic State] in Syria … In that regard, Donald [Trump] is right.” (The Moscow Times, 12.20.18, AP, 12.21.18)
- U.S.-backed Syrian fighters say they have seized the last big town under ISIS control, Hajin in northeastern Syria, and it is an important victory in the campaign to win back territory the extremist group seized in Iraq and Syria more than three years ago. (Financial Times, 12.14.18)
- America's Kurdish allies in Syria are discussing the release of 3,200 Islamic State prisoners. (New York Times, 12.21.18)
- Russia, Iran and Turkey, supporters of the main sides in Syria's civil war, on Dec. 18 failed to agree on the makeup of a U.N.-sponsored Syrian Constitutional Committee but called for it to convene early next year to kick off a viable peace process. (Reuters, 12.19.18)
- The Russian air force units deployed to Syria have reduced the number of flights from 100 a day to two to four a week. (TASS, 12.18.18)
- Hackers infiltrated the EU’s diplomatic communications network for years, downloading thousands of cables that reveal concerns about an unpredictable Trump administration and struggles to deal with Russia and China and the risk that Iran would revive its nuclear program. The techniques that the hackers deployed over a three-year period resembled those long used by an elite unit of China’s People’s Liberation Army. (New York Times, 12.20.18)
- A bill on the need to ensure the autonomous operation of the Russian segment of the Internet if there is no access to foreign servers has been submitted to the State Duma. (RFE/RL, 12.14.18)
- Russian operations meant to polarize American voters continued during the midterm elections, but did not compromise the voting systems used, Dan Coats, the director of national intelligence, announced Dec. 21. (New York Times, 12.21.18)
- Two reports produced for the U.S. Senate document the far-reaching influence campaign run by Russian operatives to sway U.S. voters' opinions during the 2016 presidential election campaign. One of the reports provided new details about how Russians working at the Internet Research Agency set up fake personas and used media to spread misinformation. The second report, prepared by researchers for New Knowledge, Columbia University and Canfield Research, focused on how Russian operatives targeted African-American and other minority voters. (RFE/RL, 12.18.18)
- The Russian influence campaign on social media in the 2016 election made an extraordinary effort to target African-Americans, according to a report produced for the Senate Intelligence Committee. (New York Times, 12.17.18)
- Big American technology companies have not told Congress the truth about the extent of Russian manipulation in the 2016 presidential election, according to the report. (Financial Times, 12.17/18)
- Facebook Inc.’s Instagram played a much bigger role in Russia’s manipulation of U.S. voters than the company has previously discussed, and will be a key Russian tool in the 2020 elections, according to one of the two reports. (Bloomberg, 12.17.18)
- The Kremlin on Dec. 18 rejected new U.S. reports alleging Russian meddling in the 2016 U.S. presidential election, saying they lacked detail and failed to explain how the Russian government was allegedly involved. (Reuters, 12.18.18)
- Months after U.S. President Donald Trump took office, Russia's disinformation teams unloaded on Robert Mueller through fake accounts on Facebook, Twitter and beyond, falsely claiming that the former FBI director was corrupt and that the allegations of Russian interference in the 2016 election were crackpot conspiracies. (The Washington Post, 12.18.18)
- U.S. Judge Emmet Sullivan postponed a sentencing hearing for Michael Flynn to give him time to continue cooperating with Robert Mueller’s probe. A hearing was scheduled for March to update the judge on the case. (Financial Times, 12.18.18)
- A House investigation of how the FBI and the Justice Department conducted probes of the Trump campaign's alleged Russia ties and Hillary Clinton's emails is fizzling to a close. (The Washington Post, 12.20.18)
- A federal judge ruled in favor of BuzzFeed on Dec. 19, bringing to a close a defamation lawsuit filed by Russian technology executive Aleksej Gubarev over the website’s publication of the Steele dossier. (New York Times, 12.19.18)
- Matthew Whitaker, the acting attorney general, has decided not to recuse himself from the Russia investigation, despite being advised otherwise by a career ethics official. (New York Times, 12.21.18)
- As Russia’s online election machinations came to light last year, a group of Democratic tech experts decided to try out similarly deceptive tactics in the fiercely contested Alabama Senate race. (New York Times, 12.19.18)
- No significant developments.
Bilateral economic ties:
- No significant developments.
Other bilateral issues:
- Russian President Vladimir Putin said at his annual press conference he did not know whether he would meet U.S. President Donald Trump in the foreseeable future. “We will reach the bottom of our relationship and understand that we need to rise, we need to push off from this bottom, sip fresh air and with a clear head think about how to live in the future.” (Financial Times, 12.20.18)
- U.S. President Donald Trump pushed back on claims that he is unwilling to be tough on Russia and China. "There has never been a president who has been tougher (but fair) on China or Russia - Never, just look at the facts. The Fake News tries so hard to paint the opposite picture," Trump wrote Dec. 21 on Twitter. (Politico, 12.21.18)
- The U.S. has imposed new sanctions on more than a dozen current and former Russian military intelligence agents, including two tied to the poisoning of a former Russian spy in England and one linked to Kremlin-connected oligarch Oleg Deripaska. (RFE/RL, 12.19.18)
- The White House has extended financial and travel restrictions on government-linked people from Uzbekistan, Russia, Ukraine and elsewhere, under a U.S. law aimed at human rights abusers and corrupt officials worldwide. (RFE/RL, 12.19.18)
- The Kremlin can only welcome Russian aluminum giant Rusal succeeding in minimizing the impact of U.S. sanctions, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters on Dec. 21. On Dec. 19, the U.S. Treasury said it would lift sanctions on the core empire of Russian businessman Oleg Deripaska, including Rusal and its parent En+, as they have agreed to restructure to reduce Deripaska's stakes. (Reuters, 12.21.18)
- U.S. Treasury Department officials used a Gmail back channel with the Russian government as the Kremlin sought sensitive financial information on its enemies in America and across the globe, according to documents reviewed by BuzzFeed News. Most startlingly, Russia requested sensitive documents on Dirk, Edward, and Daniel Ziff, billionaire investors who had run afoul of the Kremlin. (Buzzfeed, 12.20.18)
- The Russian operation to influence Americans through social media included an effort to persuade business owners to buy into a marketing campaign and turn over private information, an examination by The Wall Street Journal found. (Wall Street Journal, 12.20.18)
- The head of Russia's government media regulator has threatened fines against Facebook and Twitter if they don't comply with laws requiring user information be stored locally. (RFE/RL, 12.19.18)
- U.S. prosecutors on Dec. 21 asked a federal judge for permission to move Maria Butina to and from jail for ongoing interviews, including potentially to testify before a grand jury, in a filing intended to be sealed that appeared on the public docket for her case. (The Washington Post, 12.15.18)
- U.S. President Donald Trump's lawyer Rudy Giuliani on Dec. 19 said Trump had signed an October 2015 letter of intent to develop a real estate project in Russia during his presidential campaign, after earlier denying it in a weekend television interview. (Reuters, 12.20.18)
II. Russia’s domestic news
Politics, economy and energy:
- “We need a breakthrough. We need to jump into the new technological structure. Without this, the country has no future,” Russian President Vladimir Putin told his annual press conference. (Financial Times, 12.20.18)
- Russian President Vladimir Putin has signed a decree removing 90s era restrictions on applicants seeking political asylum in Russia, including bans on individuals with a criminal record and applicants from developed democratic countries. (The Moscow Times, 12.21.18)
- Russian lawmakers have passed a bill that will make it illegal for children to participate in protests that have not been authorized by the authorities in a measure that critics say will be selectively used to target the opposition. (The Moscow Times, 12.18.18)
- Russia’s State Duma has approved legislation to soften criminal penalties for social media posts deemed “extremist” by the authorities—a measure proposed by Russian President Vladimir Putin earlier this year. (The Moscow Times, 12.19.18)
Defense and aerospace:
- "The nuclear triad, which plays a key role in the maintenance of the global parity, obviously became stronger," Russian President Vladimir Putin told a meeting of Defense Ministry leadership, adding that the share of cutting-edge weapons in this sphere stands at 82 percent. (TASS, 12.18.18)
- Russia says two nuclear-capable Tu-160 bombers whose flight to Venezuela prompted criticism from the U.S. and other countries in the Americas have returned to their home airfield. (RFE/RL, 12.15.18)
- “If Wagner is violating something, then prosecutors should step in with a legal opinion. As for their presence somewhere abroad: If they don’t violate Russian law, they have the right to advance their business interests anywhere in the world,” Russian President Vladimir Putin told his annual press conference on Dec. 20 when asked about Wagner PMC. (The Moscow Times, 12.20.18)
- Three crew members of the International Space Station have returned to Earth as they completed their 197-day mission. (RFE/RL, 12.20.18)
- The outspoken head of Russia’s space industry has promised that by 2020, Russia will deliver astronauts and tourists to the International Space Station in less time than it takes to fly from Moscow to Brussels. (The Moscow Times, 12.17.18)
Security, law-enforcement and justice:
- Russians have accepted 1.8 billion rubles ($27 million) in bribes that the authorities have cracked down on in the first nine months of this year, federal prosecutors have said. (The Moscow Times, 12.18.18)
- Russian President Vladimir Putin has signed a law that proponents say is aimed at banning what they call "online Columbine communities" that allegedly encourage violence by schoolchildren. (RFE/RL, 12.18.18)
- The OSCE has accused Russia of shielding human rights abusers in Chechnya instead of investigating accusations of extrajudicial killings. (The Moscow Times, 12.21.18)
- Alexander Perepilichny, a Russian mafia whistleblower who was found dead after going out for a run near his home in southern England six years ago, probably died of natural causes rather than from an elaborate poison plot, a British coroner found on Dec. 19. (The Moscow Times, 12.20.18)
- The Urals Regional Military Court in Yekaterinburg on Dec. 20 found Aleksei Korotkov, a former lieutenant of the Federal Security Service (FSB), guilty of seven counts of murder and several other crimes. (RFE/RL, 12.20.18)
III. Foreign affairs, trade and investment
Russia’s general foreign policy and relations with “far abroad” countries:
- “We aim and will sincerely aim at reaching a peace treaty with Japan. I am convinced—and [Japanese] Prime Minister [Shinzo] Abe agrees—the current situation is not normal. Russia and Japan are both interested in the complete normalization of our relations,” Russian President Vladimir Putin told his annual press conference on Dec. 20. (The Moscow Times, 12.20.18)
- In an interview published on Dec. 17, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Moscow could hand Japan the two smaller islands, Shikotan and a group of islets called Habomai, if Tokyo "recognizes the results" of World War II—something he said Tokyo was "not ready for yet." Russian lawmakers have asked for an explanation following the interview. (RFE/RL, 12.18.18)
- Russia said on Dec. 17 it had built new barracks for troops on a disputed chain of islands near Japan and would build more facilities for armored vehicles. (Reuters, 12.18.18)
- The Kremlin said on Dec. 19 it was pressing ahead with the sale of advanced Russian S-400 missile defense systems to Turkey despite the U.S. State Department approving the possible $3.5 billion sale of Patriot air and missile defense systems to Ankara. (Reuters, 12.19.18)
- The World Economic Forum in Davos has bowed to pressure from Moscow and gone back on its decision to ban three Russian businessmen subject to U.S. sanctions from the exclusive conference. (Financial Times, 12.16.18)
- Russia has asked a Swedish diplomat in Moscow to leave the country after Stockholm rejected two Russian applications for diplomatic visas, the Swedish foreign ministry said on Dec. 21. (Reuters, 12.21.18)
- Russia's media regulator, Roskomnadzor, says it has started checking the legality of the BBC World News channel's Russian operations and its websites, following a statement by British media watchdog Ofcom that Russia's RT television channel had violated impartiality rules. (RFE/RL, 12.21.18)
- Russian President Vladimir Putin told his annual press conference that efforts to avoid Britain breaking away from the EU defy democratic principles because the matter was decided in the Brexit referendum in 2016. (RFE/RL, 12.20.18)
- Russian President Vladimir Putin told his annual press conference that accusations that Moscow was behind a nerve-agent attack on former Russian intelligence officer Sergei Skripal and his daughter in England in March were an excuse for Britain and other Western countries to impose new sanctions. (RFE/RL, 12.20.18)
- The Netherlands is considering referring Russia to an international court after reaching an impasse with the Kremlin over responsibility for shooting down a civilian airliner over Ukraine in 2014, killing 298 people, many of them Dutch citizens. (New York Times, 12.20.18)
- "Good results were shown at [the] massive Vostok-2018 maneuvers," Russian President Vladimir Putin told a meeting of Defense Ministry leadership, noting that partners from China and Mongolia acted in line with the general plan and under single combat rules with Russian units. (TASS, 12.18.18)
- Ukrainian Christian Orthodox leaders have chosen 39-year-old bishop Epifaniy from the Odessa region as head of a new church that will be independent from Russia’s patriarchy, severing another of the country’s ties with Moscow. (Financial Times, 12.15.18)
- Ukraine’s parliament has approved a bill that would force the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate to add "Russian" to its name. (RFE/RL, 12.20.18)
- In a statement on Dec. 17, the U.S. State Department said it sent its congratulations to the new Ukrainian Orthodox church's leader, Metropolitan Epifaniy, calling it "a historic moment for Ukraine." (RFE/RL, 12.18.18)
- U.S. and Ukrainian officials called for tougher measures against Russia over its seizure of three Ukrainian naval vessels in the Black Sea late last month. Kurt Volker, the U.S. special representative for Ukraine, on Dec. 17 advocated, at minimum, for targeted sanctions against certain Russian officials, while Ukraine Prime Minister Volodymyr Groysman backed combining those measures with broader economic sanctions. A drive to impose more sanctions on Russia seems to be "gaining some traction," Volker said. (RFE/RL, 12.17.18, Wall Street Journal, 12.18.18)
- Russian President Vladimir Putin said that the fate of the 24 Ukrainian crewmen now jailed in Moscow would be decided after the legal process is complete, suggesting they will not be released or swapped and returned to Ukraine until a trial is at least held. “Why do our Ukrainian partners need this [Kerch Strait crisis]? … Did the provocation achieve its aims? In terms of raising ratings, maybe,” Putin told his annual press conference on Dec. 20. (RFE/RL, 12.20.18, The Moscow Times, 12.20.18)
- British defense minister Gavin Williamson visited Ukraine on Dec. 21, where he told his Ukrainian counterpart that the Black Sea did not belong to Russia and that Britain had sent a Royal Navy ship there to show Kiev did not stand alone. (Reuters, 12.21.18)
- Ukrainian officials have been raising alarms about what they say is a huge buildup of Russian troops, tanks and artillery pieces along their border that could signal preparations for an invasion. (New York Times, 12.16.18)
- Russia's Defense Ministry said on Dec. 17 it was deploying more than 10 Sukhoi SU-27 and SU-30 fighter jets to Crimea after Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov alleged Ukraine was preparing "a provocation" near Crimea before the end of the year. (Reuters, 12.17.18)
- Russia will not wage war with Ukraine, which exhibits “all of the characteristics of a Nazi regime,” Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has said in a controversial interview. (The Moscow Times, 12.18.18)
- Russia said it regretted a newly passed U.N. resolution criticizing its militarization of “temporarily occupied” Crimea. A total of 66 states supported the document, 19 voted against it and 72 abstained. Countries that abstained included China, Vietnam, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Mexico and Uruguay. (Ukrinform, 12.18.18, The Moscow Times, 12.18.18)
- Ukraine's border service reported on Dec. 17 that, after easing up on restrictions, Russia is again severely disrupting sea traffic heading to and from Mariupol and the nearby Ukrainian port of Berdyansk under the bridge to Crimea. (New York Times, 12.15.18)
- The International Monetary Fund has approved a new $3.9 billion loan agreement for Ukraine. (RFE/RL, 12.19.18)
Russia’s other post-Soviet neighbors:
- Salome Zurabishvili was sworn in as the president of Georgia on Dec. 16 after she won a runoff last month. (RFE/RL, 12.16.18)
- A 23-year-old soldier serving at a Russian military base in Armenia has been charged with beating an Armenian woman to death, lawyers for the victims' daughter say. (RFE/RL, 12.18.18)
- Several dozen activists have demonstrated in front of the Chinese Embassy in Kyrgyzstan’s capital, Bishkek, to denounce the "persecution" of the indigenous communities in China’s northwestern region of Xinjiang, including ethnic Kyrgyz, Kazakhs and Uyghurs. (RFE/RL, 12.20.18)
- Uzbekistan’s Senate has approved a law that criminalizes begging in public places across the country. (RFE/RL, 12.14.18)
- Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan aim to launch a program dubbed Silk Visa, which will allow foreigners with visas issued by either of the two countries to travel in both Central Asian republics. (RFE/RL, 12.21.18)
- No significant developments.