Russia in Review, Dec. 21, 2018-Jan. 4, 2019

This Week’s Highlights:

  • The U.S. believes it makes “no sense” to comply with the INF Treaty without Russia’s buy-in, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said, The Moscow Times reports. But the treaty may not be dead yet, in the view of Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. Lavrov has said: “If there are still forces in the United States that assume to use the pause taken by Washington to search for ways to save the INF Treaty, then we are open to this.”
  • U.S. President Donald Trump has called for Russia and others to take a more active role in the conflict in Afghanistan, Newsweek reports.
  • Former U.S. Marine Paul Whelan, who has been detained in Russia on charges of espionage that he denies, holds U.S., Canadian, British and Irish citizenship and has requested consular assistance from at least two of these countries, according to the Wall Street Journal.
  • Russia has described Syrian President Bashar al-Assad as a popular leader who has every chance to win re-election, welcoming a thaw in ties between his once-pariah regime and Arab nations, according to Bloomberg.
  • Gazprom reported a record 201 billion cubic meters of natural gas exports to Europe in 2018, while Russia’s oil production reached a post-Soviet high last year even as it coordinated supply with OPEC, averaging an output of 11.16 million barrels a day, Bloomberg and The Moscow Times report.
  • Special ceremonies in the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople on Jan. 6 will make the autocephaly of the Orthodox Church of Ukraine official, according to media outlet Greek Reporter.

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

Nuclear security and safety:

  • U.S., Russian and European nuclear safety and security experts met in Helsinki in mid-December to discuss ways of preventing radioactive materials from getting into the hands of terrorists, Finland’s Uutiset media outlet reported. The meeting was proposed by the U.S. National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine, according to the outlet. (Russia Matters, 01.04.19)

North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs:

  • No significant developments.

Iran’s nuclear program and related issues:

  • A plan for Iranian airlines to buy Russian-built passenger jets appears to have collapsed as a result of U.S. sanctions. (Forbes, 01.01.19)

Military issues, including NATO-Russia relations:

  • U.S. Rep. Adam Smith, the new chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, could alter the Pentagon’s plans to buy new nuclear weapons and slow purchases of other expensive arms. “Yeah, the world is a dangerous place,” he continued. “But what is a sensible approach to that? Is it plausible that the Chinese are going to launch an all-our war against us? Probably not. The Russians? Probably not,” Smith said last fall. (DefenseOne, 12.18.18, DefenseOne, 01.01.19)

Missile defense:

  • No significant developments.

Nuclear arms control:

  • The U.S. believes it makes “no sense” to comply with the INF Treaty without Russia’s buy-in, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has said one month after warning that Washington could exit the treaty. (The Moscow Times, 01.04.19)
  • “If there are still forces in the United States that assume to use the pause taken by Washington to search for ways to save the INF Treaty, then we are open to this,” Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said. (Sputnik, 12.24.18)


  • A collapse in Western relations with Russia over the past few years has meant that progress on anti-terror collaboration is “frozen,” Ilya Rogachev, a Russian Foreign Ministry official, said, which was hampering efforts to exchange information. (Financial Times, 12.26.18)
  • Lawyers for Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev have asked an appeals court to overturn his conviction and death penalty, arguing that it was impossible for him to get a fair trial in the same city where the deadly 2013 terrorist attack took place. (RFE/RL, 12.28.18)

Conflict in Syria:

  • U.S. President Donald Trump said on Jan. 2 U.S. forces will withdraw from Syria "over a period of time," insisting he wants to protect U.S.-backed Kurdish fighters battling Islamic State. Trump then agreed to give the military about four months to withdraw the 2,000 U.S. troops in Syria, administration officials said on Dec. 31. (New York Times, 12.31.18, RFE/RL, 01.03.19)
    • Turkey and Russia have agreed to coordinate "on the ground" in Syria following a planned U.S. troop withdrawal, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has said following a meeting with Turkish officials in Moscow. (RFE/RL, 12.29.18)
    • The imminent withdrawal of U.S. troops from Syria will leave thousands of foreign Islamic State fighters and their family members piled up in prisons and camps. They come from 44 nations and include 900 male fighters, around 600 women and more than 1,200 children. Turks make up the largest group, followed by Moroccans, Tunisians and Russians. Americans constitute one of the smallest groups, with barely a handful in custody. (The Washington Post, 12.23.18)
  • Thirty-six Russian children have been repatriated from Syria and Iraq aboard a Baghdad-Moscow charter flight. Children’s rights ombudsperson Anna Kuznetsova said 36 more children of jailed or killed Islamic State members are planned to be brought to Russia in January. (The Moscow Times, 12.31.18)
  • A Russian woman and child have been killed in U.S.-led airstrikes on an Islamic State-held village in eastern Syria, a Chechen human rights council member has said. (The Moscow Times, 01.04.19)
  • Russia described Syrian President Bashar al-Assad as a popular leader who has every chance to win re-election, welcoming a thaw in ties between his once-pariah regime and Arab nations. “Of course, I think so,” Russian President Vladimir Putin’s envoy to the Middle East, Mikhail Bogdanov, said when asked whether the Syrian leader can triumph in the next presidential vote. (Bloomberg, 12.27.18)
    • U.S. allies in the Persian Gulf are exploring stronger ties with the Syrian regime, which was been widely shunned by Arab states in the region during the country's nearly eight years of civil war. (Wall Street Journal, 12.27.18)
  • Russia welcomes the return of Kurdish territories in Syria to the control of the Assad government, the Kremlin spokesman said Dec. 28, after Damascus said its forces had entered the town of Manbij. (Reuters, 12.28.18)
  • Israeli airstrikes near the Syrian capital overnight endangered two civilian flights trying to land at the Damascus and Beirut airports, Russia's Defense Ministry said. (The Washington Post, 12.27.18)
  • Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu held talks on Jan. 4 with Russian President Vladimir Putin for the first time since the shock U.S. military withdrawal from Syria was announced. (AFP, 01.04.19)

Cyber security:

  • In December in Moscow, a group of former and current officials from China, Russia and the U.S held a two-day meeting, hosted by the Russian Foreign Ministry, to explore guidelines for conflicts within and among computer networks. (Bloomberg, 01.04.19)

Elections interference:

  • Nancy Pelosi was elected House speaker as the 116th Congress convened on Jan. 3. Pelosi has resisted calls from some members of her caucus to open impeachment proceedings against U.S. President Donald Trump, saying the House would wait for the results of special counsel Robert Mueller's investigation. Trump sought on Jan. 4 to push back against talk of impeaching him, arguing that his adversaries want to remove him from office because of his popularity and success. (Wall Street Journal, 01.03.19, The Washington Post, 01.04.19)
  • House Democrats on Jan. 3 kicked off plans to scrutinize U.S. President Donald Trump, his finances and his administration's policies with a bill to protect special counsel Robert Mueller's probe into the Trump campaign's alleged Russia ties, by giving him recourse if Trump tries to fire him. (The Washington Post, 01.03.19)
  • Rep. Adam Schiff is expected to re-energize the House’s investigation into U.S. President Donald Trump’s dealings with not just Russia but also Saudi Arabia, as well as any financial dealings the president may have had with foreign powers, like Moscow and Riyadh, before taking office. (Financial Times, 12.31.18)

Energy exports:

  • Gazprom reported a record 201 billion cubic meters of natural gas exports to Europe in 2018 and plans to maintain those volumes into 2020. (Business Times, 01.04.19)
  • Russia’s oil production reached a post-Soviet high last year even as it coordinated supply with OPEC. Output averaged 11.16 million barrels a day, up 1.6 percent from 2017. (The Moscow Times, 01.02.19)

Bilateral economic ties:

  • U.S. satellite start-up OneWeb has offered to sell a minority stake to Russia, a move it hopes will allay Moscow's concerns about the company's plan to create a worldwide internet network using satellites. (Reuters, 12.24.18)
  • When Russ Dallen of the brokerage Caracas Capital Markets sifted through court filings in Delaware, where Citgo's holding company is based, he found that Rosneft had reached a deal that had pumped $1.5 billion into Venezuela in exchange for a lien on 49.9 percent of Citgo. With assumptions that Citgo, if sold, could be worth between $6 billion and $9 billion, the arrangement amounted to a sweetheart deal—and, in addition, the Russians had managed to lay claim to almost half of a major U.S. oil giant. (The Washington Post, 12.25.18)

Other bilateral issues:

  • U.S. President Donald Trump has called for Russia and others to take a more active role in the conflict in Afghanistan after claiming that involvement there was responsible for the collapse of the Soviet Union. “But Russia should be fighting, the reason Russia was in Afghanistan was because terrorists were going into Russia, they were right to be there, the problem is it was a tough fight and literally they went bankrupt, they went into being called Russia again as opposed to the Soviet Union," he added. (Newsweek,  01.02.19)
    • Afghan officials on Jan. 3 blasted U.S. President Donald Trump's praise of the 1979 Soviet invasion and occupation, which he described as a fight against terrorism, breaking with decades of Republican anti-communist beliefs. (The Washington Post, 01.03.19)
  • Russian President Vladimir Putin said in a New Year letter to his U.S. counterpart Donald Trump that Moscow was ready for dialogue on a "wide-ranging agenda.” The Kremlin said Russian-U.S. relations are “the most important factor for providing strategic stability and international security.” (The Moscow Times, 12.31.18)
  • Moscow does not expect its increasingly tense relations with Washington to improve any time soon, Russia’s chief diplomat in New York Vasily Nebenzya said in a recent interview. (The Moscow Times, 12.25.18)
  • The U.S. is demanding the immediate return of retired U.S. Marine Paul Whelan detained by Russia on spying charges, and wants an explanation on why he was arrested, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said on Jan. 2. (Reuters, 01.02.19)
    • Rosbalt quoted an unidentified intelligence source on Jan. 2 as saying that Whelan, who denies the charges of espionage, had been apprehended during a meeting with a Russian citizen in his room at the Metropol Hotel in Moscow. He is accused of trying to recruit this person to obtain classified information about staff members at various Russian agencies, the account said. (New York Times, 01.03.19, The Washington Post, 01.03.19)
    • Whelan could face up to 20 years in prison if convicted of espionage. The lawyer for Whelan said on Jan. 3 that he had found his client in an upbeat mood. The U.S. ambassador to Russia was allowed to meet the man in the Lefortovo detention facility. (Reuters, 01.03.19, New York Times, 01.03.19, The Washington Post, 01.03.19)
    • In addition to his U.S. and Canadian citizenship, Whelan also holds British and Irish passports and requested Irish consular assistance. “We are extremely worried about Paul Whelan; we have offered consular assistance," British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt said. (RTE, 01.04.19, The Moscow Times, 01.04.19, Wall Street Journal, 01.04.19)
  • Sens. Jeanne Shaheen and Robert Menendez are threatening to block the Trump administration’s invitation of a sanctioned Russian official, head of Russia’s space agency Dmitry Rogozin, to visit the U.S. (Politico, 01.03.19)
  • 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. The effort was fronted by Russian operatives posing as a savvy Los Angeles-based startup called Your Digital Face. (Wall Street Journal, 12.22.18)
  • Russian aluminum giant Rusal says Jean-Pierre Thomas has been elected by the board of directors as the company’s new chairman as part of restructuring moves made in exchange for the lifting of U.S. sanctions. (RFE/RL, 12.28.18)

II. Russia’s domestic news

Politics, economy and energy:

  • Vyacheslav Volodin, speaker of the State Duma, raised the possibility of changing the constitution as speculation grows that the Kremlin is considering ways to allow Russian President Vladimir Putin to remain in power beyond the end of his current term. “There are questions in society, esteemed Vladimir Vladimirovich,” Volodin said. “This is the time when we could answer these questions, without in any way threatening the fundamental provisions” of the constitution, he added. (Bloomberg, 12.26.18)
  • Russia's top investigative body says no traces of explosives have been found in the rubble of an apartment building that collapsed on Dec. 31, killing 39 people. The casualty count has progressively increased since the 10-story building fell in what the authorities described as a gas explosion. (AP, 01.04.19, The Moscow Times, 01.03.19)
  • Young Russians under the age of 18 who have led nationwide anti-government rallies in recent years are now banned from attending unauthorized protests under a newly signed law. (The Moscow Times, 12.28.18)
  • Russian President Vladimir Putin has signed into law partial decriminalization of contentious criminal legislation that Russian law enforcement authorities have relied on to prosecute internet users. (The Moscow Times, 12.28.18)
  • Russian activist Valery Kazantsev who helped organize protests against plans to raise the retirement age has been severely beaten by unknown attackers. (RFE/RL, 01.02.19)
  • A Moscow court has upheld Federal Security Service chief Alexander Bortnikov’s controversial interview defending his predecessors, who were involved in organizing mass purges and the Gulag prison system. (The Moscow Times, 12.24.18)
  • Russia’s Audit Chamber estimates that Russia’s GDP grew in 2018 at 1.5 percent, against an official forecast of 1.8 percent. Inflation outpaced forecasts of 2.7 percent, totaling 4.2 percent, the Audit Chamber says. In the meantime, Russia’s official statistics service has revised 2016 GDP data from contracting by 0.2 percent to growing by 0.3 percent. In 2017, the new data shows growth of 1.6 percent instead of 1.5 percent. (The Moscow Times, 01.03.19, The Moscow Times, 12.31.18)
  • Russia’s national currency opened the new year at the lowest levels against the U.S. dollar in almost three years before paring losses at below 70 rubles. The last time the ruble weakened beyond 70 versus the dollar was in September 2018, a first since mid-March 2016 as the threat of U.S. sanctions loomed. (The Moscow Times, 01.03.19)
  • Russians saw virtually no change in their purchasing power as prices outpaced growth estimates in 2018, the country’s chief auditor has said. “Citizens’ real incomes increased by decimal points, if they grew at all,” Audit Chamber head Alexei Kudrin tweeted Jan. 2. (The Moscow Times, 01.03.19)
  • Unit 1 of the Leningrad nuclear power plant has been withdrawn from service after 45 years of safe operation, Russian state nuclear corporation Rosatom has announced. (World Nuclear News, 12.27.18)

Defense and aerospace:

  • On Dec. 26, Russia’s Strategic Rocket Forces performed a test of the Avangard system that includes a hypersonic glide vehicle carried on a UR-100NUTTH/SS-19 missile. The deployment will begin with two UR-100NUTTH missiles with the glide vehicle of the Avangard system beginning with two missiles deployed at Dombarovskiy by the end of 2019. (Russian Strategic Forces blog, 12.26.18)
  • Russia in 2019 will deploy the S-350 Vityaz new generation short-to-mid range surface-to-air defense missile complex, the Russian Defense Ministry said, in a long-planned move to replace its aging S-300 system. (The Moscow Times, 12.31.18)
  • Russian ground troops in the Western Military District will receive Iskander-M ballistic missiles in 2019, "completing" the "rearmament of the missile formations of the land forces," the Kremlin stated on Jan. 1. (The National Interest, 01.02.19)

Security, law-enforcement and justice:

  • France has extradited Alexei Kuznetsov, a former finance minister of the Moscow region suspected of embezzling $200 million, five years after Russian prosecutors had put in an extradition request. (The Moscow Times, 01.03.19)

III. Foreign affairs, trade and investment

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

  • Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said on Jan. 4 he intends to push forward toward a World War II peace treaty with Russia, which has been stymied for decades by a territorial row, during a summit in Russia later this month. Russian lawmakers have earlier assailed Abe’s vow not to displace Russians living in the strategic group of islands that Tokyo seeks to regain from Russia. (Reuters, 01.04.19, The Moscow Times, 01.02.19)
  • Moscow and London have reached an agreement to return some staff to their respective embassies after they expelled dozens of diplomats early in 2018, the Russian embassy said. (Reuters, 12.29.18)
  • The nuclear power industry has suffered its latest embarrassing delay in Europe after a Russian project in Finland was forced to push back its proposed starting date by four years. (Financial Times, 12.26.18)


  • China became the first country in history to land an unmanned probe on the far side of the moon on Jan. 2. The head of the Russian state space corporation Roscosmos, Dmitry Rogozin, on Jan. 3 congratulated the Chinese colleagues on the successful landing of the Chang'e-4 probe. (Aviationist, 01.03.19, Xinhua, 01.04.19)


  • Russia has banned manufacturing and agricultural products from Ukraine, including gas turbines, alcohol and chocolate. Russia’s Economic Development Ministry estimates $510 million worth of banned products were imported from Ukraine this year. (The Moscow Times, 12.31.18)
  • The Ukrainian armed forces’ 128th Mountain Brigade has identified a captured soldier in a video posted by Russia-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine as Andriy Kachynskyy. (RFE/RL, 01.04.19)
  • The Russian Foreign Ministry has rejected what it says are unacceptable demands by Germany and France to release Ukrainian soldiers held by Russia. (RFE/RL, 12.29.18)
  • Russia has finished constructing a 60-kilometer fence on the Crimean border with Ukraine. (The Moscow Times, 12.28.18)
  • Ukrainian lawyer Igor Kiyashko has reportedly been sentenced to eight years behind bars in Russia for espionage and attempting to illegally obtain and export military goods. (The Moscow Times, 12.26.18)
  • Russian Security Council Secretary Nikolai Patrushev said in an interview published on Dec. 26 without providing any supporting evidence that "leaders of ultrarightist groups from the U.S. have been training for months together with radical organizations in Ukraine." (RFE/RL, 12.26.18)
  • The EU formally extended economic sanctions against Russia on Dec. 21, first imposed more than four years ago for Moscow's annexation of Crimea. (RFE/RL, 12.21.18)
  • Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko announced on Dec. 26 the end of martial law in the country's border regions that was imposed last month after Russia seized Ukrainian ships in the Black Sea. (RFE/RL, 12.26.18)
  • The autocephaly of the Orthodox Church of Ukraine will be made official in special ceremonies which will take place in the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople on Jan. 6. (Greek Reporter, 01.04.19)
  • Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko has signed a law requiring the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate to change its name to one that reveals its affiliation with the Moscow-based Russian Orthodox Church. (RFE/RL, 12.22.18)
  • In February 2015, a dozen U.S. senators received an email from someone purporting to belong to a group called the "Patriots of Ukraine." The petition implored the senators to send "high-experienced U.S. and NATO specialists" to substitute for Ukrainian commanding officers. It was the first known, if somewhat crude, effort by the GRU's main psychological-operations division to influence U.S. politicians, according to a Western intelligence agency.  (The Washington Post, 12.28.18)
  • Volodymyr Zelenskiy, a leading Ukrainian actor and comedian, has ended months of speculation by announcing he will run in the country’s upcoming presidential election. A December 2018 poll shows Zelenskiy would attract 8.8 percent of votes compared to Poroshenko’s 13.8 percent and ex-PM Timoshenko’s 16.1 percent. However, the poll also shows the comedian would beat both of his rivals if there is a second round in which he is included. (RFE/RL, 01.02.19, Russia Matters, 01.04.19)

Russia’s other post-Soviet neighbors:

  • Alyaksandr Lukashenka does not call Russia a “brotherly state” anymore, he said at a Dec. 25 meeting on current issues of cooperation with the Russian Federation. Lukashenko met Vladimir Putin in the Kremlin on Dec. 29 to try to resolve an energy pricing dispute, the second such meeting that week. Earlier in 2018, Russia changed its tax system in a way that left Belarus paying significantly more for Russian oil and gas. (Belsat, 12.25.18, RFE/RL, 12.30.18)
  • Russian gas giant Gazprom will supply Armenia with gas for $165 per 1,000 cubic meters in 2019, the company said on Dec. 31, up from $150 in 2018. Acting Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian said during a meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow on Dec. 27 that his country is determined to continue "integration" within the Russian-led Eurasian Economic Union. (Reuters, 12.31.18, RFE/RL, 12.27.18)
  • Newly released archive files in Latvia show that a former prime minister and the current Supreme Court chief justice are among those who collaborated with the Soviet KGB during the Cold War. (RFE/RL, 12.21.18)
  • Turkmenistan's authoritarian President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov has appointed his son Serdar as deputy governor of the south-central region of Ahal. (RFE/RL, 01.03.19)
  • A regional court in Kazakhstan has upheld a lower court’s decision to deny bail to the former boss of the country’s uranium giant, Kazatomprom, Mukhtar Dzahakishev. (RFE/RL, 01.04.19)

IV. Quoteworthy

  • No significant developments.