Russia in Review, Feb. 19-26, 2021

This Week’s Highlights

  • U.S. President Joe Biden's pick to the lead the CIA, William Burns, told lawmakers that the "biggest geopolitical test" the U.S. faces comes from China, but said Russia remains a familiar threat, according to the Wall Street Journal. ''Putin's Russia continues to demonstrate that declining powers can be just as disruptive as rising ones and can make use of asymmetrical tools, especially cybertools, to do that,'' Burns said. "As long as Vladimir Putin is the leader of Russia, we're going to be operating within a pretty narrow band of possibilities, from the very sharply competitive to the very nastily adversarial," he asserted, RFE/RL reports.
  • Speaking to the Federal Security Services in his annual address to the domestic intelligence agency, Russian President Vladimir Putin called on the FSB to make the Western threat a priority in its work this year along with its primary task of countering terrorism, according to AFP. "We are faced with the so-called policy of containing Russia. … This is not about competition... but about a consistent and very aggressive line aimed at disrupting our development, slowing it down, creating problems along our borders," Putin added.
  • Russia was given about four to five minutes warning of the Biden administration's first military action when it struck Iranian-backed militias in eastern Syria early Feb. 26, according to Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. He said the warning came too late to reduce the risk of a potential clash between the two country's forces, according to The Washington Post. According to the Pentagon’s John Kirby, however, the U.S. military “did what we believe was the proper amount of notification for this.”
  • With Biden's aides struggling to find innovative ways to retaliate against Russia for the most sophisticated hacking of government and corporations in history, key senators and corporate executives testified Feb. 23 that the ''scope and scale'' of the operation were unclear, and that the attack might still be continuing, the New York Times reports. The subtext of much of the testimony was that Russia's intelligence services might have laced American networks with ''backdoor'' access.  
  • Despite declining real incomes and rising poverty, the share of Russians who view their country as headed in the right direction and who had a positive view of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s performance continued to exceed the share of those who held the opposite view on these issues so far this year, according to the Levada Center’s latest batch of polling results. At the same time, the Russian president, whom 41 percent of respondents do not want to see stay on in his current role beyond 2024, had to contend with a decline in the approval of his cabinet’s work and the lower chamber of the Russian parliament, which is dominated by his loyalists, ahead of parliamentary elections this fall.
  • Thousands of opposition supporters marched through Yerevan demanding the resignation of Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan Feb. 26 after the General Staff accused Pashinyan and his government of bringing the country “to the brink of collapse,” RFE/RL reports.

 

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

Nuclear security:

  • No significant developments.

North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs:

  • Eight Russian Embassy employees and their families made their way home Feb. 25 with the help of a railroad handcar loaded with luggage and children. Their journey began with a 32-hour train ride out of Pyongyang, followed by a 2-hour bus ride to the Russian border, where Russia’s Foreign Ministry said a crucial last leg awaited them. (The Moscow Times, 02.26.21)

Iran and its nuclear program:

  • A last-minute deal between Iran and the U.N. atomic watchdog over snap inspections has opened a narrow diplomatic window to revive the JCPOA. The Islamic republic had planned to stop snap inspections of its nuclear sites from Feb. 23 but an agreement announced late on Feb. 21 allows some “verification and monitoring,” reducing tensions. While the IAEA’s access will still be more limited than previously, the U.N. body welcomed the three-month compromise as a “good result.” (Financial Times, 02.22.21)
    • Russian Permanent Representative to International Organizations in Vienna Mikhail Ulyanov has highly appreciated the recent agreements between the IAEA and Iran.  (Interfax, 02.24.21)
  • Russia is against adding new terms to the Iran nuclear deal in the return of the U.S. to the deal, Russia’s First Deputy Permanent Representative to the U.N. Dmitry Polyanskiy said. (TASS, 02.25.21)

Great Power rivalry/New Cold War/saber rattling:

  • Addressing the Munich security conference on Feb. 19, U.S. President Joe Biden promised to abide by NATO’s Article 5. “Standing up for the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine remains a vital concern for Europe and the United States. That's why addressing recklessness—Russian recklessness and hacking into computer networks, in the United States and across Europe and the world, has become critical to protecting our collective security. The challenges with Russia may be different than the ones with China, but they're just as real,” he said. (Financial Times, 02.19.21, Nikkei, 02.19.21)
  • Addressing the Munich Security Conference, German Chancellor Angela Merkel noted Biden’s decision to extend the New START nuclear treaty with Russia for five years, and his commitment to reviving the Iran nuclear deal among moves she described as “important steps on the path to more multilateral cooperation.” “It is very important for us to develop a common transatlantic agenda toward Russia. On the one hand, of course we should offer cooperation. But on the other hand we must be clear about the differences we have,” she said. Merkel added that she shared Biden’s view that Russia has been working to destabilize the European Union. “Russia continually entangles European Union members in hybrid conflicts,” she said. “Consequently it is important that we come up with a trans-Atlantic agenda toward Russia that makes cooperative offers on the one hand, but on the other very clearly names the differences.” (Anadolu, 02.19.21, Financial Times, 02.19.21, New York Times, 02.19.21)
  • Addressing the Munich Security Conference, French President Emmanuel Macron said European countries had to increase their defense spending as a way to “rebalance the transatlantic relation[ship] and provide evidence that we are reliable and responsible partners.” While Macron believed Europe required "the ability to act" independently, he felt nuclear issues needed to be managed in cooperation with NATO. He said it was clear that Europe and the U.S. also had different interests. “We need to develop our own strategy. We don't have the same geographic conditions (as the U.S.), not the same ideas about social equilibrium, about social welfare. There are ideals we have to defend. Mediterranean policy: that is a European thing, not a trans-Atlantic thing, and the same goes for Russia—we need a European policy, not just a trans-Atlantic policy." Macron also urged that the renovation of NATO’S security abilities should involve “a dialogue with Russia.” (New York Times, 02.19.21, Financial Times, 02.20.21, Deutsche Welle, 02.20.21)
  • Biden's pick to the lead the CIA, William Burns, told lawmakers that the "biggest geopolitical test" the United States faces comes from China, but said Russia remains a familiar threat. "Today's landscape is increasingly complicated and competitive," Burns said. "It's a world where familiar threats persist—from terrorism and nuclear proliferation, to an aggressive Russia, a provocative North Korea and a hostile Iran." ''Putin's Russia continues to demonstrate that declining powers can be just as disruptive as rising ones and can make use of asymmetrical tools, especially cybertools, to do that,'' Burns said. ''We can't afford to underestimate them.'' "As long as Vladimir Putin is the leader of Russia, we're going to be operating within a pretty narrow band of possibilities, from the very sharply competitive to the very nastily adversarial," he said. (Wall Street Journal, 02.24.21, The Washington Post, 02.24.21, New York Times, 02.24.21, RFE/RL, 02.25.21)
  • Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov attended last year’s Munich Security Conference, but not this year’s. Russia’s Kommersant daily reported, citing no one, that Russian representatives were not invited to the Munich Security Conference. The Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman was quoted by TASS as saying that “there was no talk of involving other countries, including Russia and China,” in the discussions at the conference. (Russia Matters, 02.21.21)
  • Speaking to the FSB in his annual address to the domestic intelligence agency, Russian President Vladimir Putin called on the FSB to make the Western threat a priority in its work this year along with its primary task of countering terrorism, saying the West is "trying to shackle us with economic and other sanctions." "We are faced with the so-called policy of containing Russia," he said. "This is not about competition... but about a consistent and very aggressive line aimed at disrupting our development, slowing it down, creating problems along our borders," Putin added, saying the West was employing tools "from the arsenal of the special services." (AFP, 02.24.21)
  • German prosecutors say they have filed espionage charges against a German man suspected of passing the floor plan for the parliament building in Berlin to Russian intelligence services. The suspect, named only as Jens F., worked for a company that was contracted by the Bundestag to carry out regular checks on electric equipment in the legislature. Earlier, German political researcher Demuri Voronin was arrested over suspicions of treason in Russia. According to the information from open sources, Voronin is a businessman in the consulting industry, and a member of the German Society for Eastern European Studies. (TASS, 02.19.21, RFE/RL, 02.25.21)

NATO-Russia relations:

  • No significant developments.

Missile defense:

  • No significant developments.

Nuclear arms control:

  • No significant developments.

Counter-terrorism:

  • No significant developments.

Conflict in Syria:

  • Russia was given about four to five minutes warning of the Biden administration's first military action when it struck Iranian-backed militias in eastern Syria early Feb. 26, according to Lavrov. But he said the warning came too late to reduce the risk of a potential clash between the two country's forces. "Our military was warned four or five minutes in advance. Of course, this has no value even from the angle of deconfliction, as they say in relations between Russian and U.S. servicemen," Lavrov told a Moscow news conference. "We strongly condemn such actions and call for Syria's sovereignty and territorial integrity to be unconditionally respected," Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova told reporters. According to the Pentagon’s John Kirby, however, the U.S. military “did what we believe was the proper amount of notification for this.” Biden directed airstrikes overnight against infrastructure facilities in eastern Syria belonging to what the Pentagon said were Iran-backed militant groups, killing at least 22 fighters. (The Washington Post, 02.26.21, The Moscow Times, 02.26.21, France24.com, 02.26.21)
  • Moscow will ask American colleagues about their plans concerning a permanent presence in Syria, Lavrov said Feb. 26. (TASS, 02.26.21)
  • “The socio-economic situation in Syria today is extremely difficult,” Alexander Efimov, the Russian ambassador to Syria, said this month. But sending support was “very difficult,” he said because Russia, too, was suffering from the pandemic and Western sanctions. The World Food Program warned this month that 60 percent of Syrians, or 12.4 million people, were at risk of going hungry, the highest number ever recorded. (New York Times, 02.23.21)
  • A wave of air strikes by government ally Russia killed at least 21 Islamic State jihadists in the Syrian desert over the past 24 hours, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said Feb. 20. The raids, which continued into Feb. 20, follow a series of Islamic State attacks Feb. 19 on government and allied forces that killed at least eight members of a pro-Damascus militia, the monitor said. (AFP, 02.20.21)
  • The Syria-based Rojava Information Center on Feb. 21 reported that Russian forces had pulled out from the main base in Ain Issa in northeast Syria, possibly in a bid to pressure the Syrian Democratic Forces to make a deal with the Assad government. (Kurdistan24, 02.22.21)
  • Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Putin on Feb. 18 discussed regional issues including Nagorno-Karabakh, Syria and Libya in a phone call. Speaking on the Syrian civil war, Erdoğan stressed that it is for the benefit of everyone to find a solution as soon as possible. Lavrov and his Turkish counterpart Mevlut Cavusoglu also held negotiations over the phone Feb. 18. (Daily Sabah, 02.18.21, TASS, 02.18.21)
  • When a young Israeli woman was released from detention in Syria this week, after having been arrested for crossing illegally into Syria, the official story was that she had been the beneficiary of a straightforward prisoner swap. But in secret, Israel had in fact also agreed to a far more contentious ransom: the financing of an undisclosed number of COVID-19 vaccines for Syria, according to an official familiar with the content of the negotiations. (New York Times, 02.20.21)
  • The Russian Sputnik V coronavirus vaccine has been registered in Syria and its use is now permitted in the republic, the Syrian Embassy in Moscow said in a statement obtained by TASS. The Sputnik V coronavirus vaccine has been approved for use in over 30 countries. (TASS, 02.22.21)

Cyber security:

  • U.S. national security adviser Jake Sullivan has warned that the United States will respond within "weeks, not months" to a suspected Russian cyberattack, discovered in December. With Biden's aides struggling to find innovative ways to retaliate against Russia for the most sophisticated hacking of government and corporations in history, key senators and corporate executives testified Feb. 23 that the ''scope and scale'' of the operation were unclear, and that the attack might still be continuing. Biden's aides are contemplating a range of responses. Those options, according to officials familiar with the discussions, include using cybertools to reveal or freeze assets secretly held by Putin, the exposure of his links to oligarchs or technological moves to break through Russian censorship to help dissidents communicate to the Russian people at a moment of political protest. Many of the companies that lost data to the Russians have not admitted to it, either out of embarrassment or because there is no legal requirement to disclose even a major breach. But the subtext of much of the testimony was that Russia's intelligence services might have laced American networks with ''backdoor'' access. And that possibility—just the fear of it—could constrain the kind of punishment that Biden metes out. Officials also are developing defensive measures and there will be an attribution statement stronger than the one the intelligence community released in January saying that Moscow "likely" was behind the SolarWinds operation. (New York Times, 02.23.21, The Washington Post,  02.23.21, RFE/RL, 02.21.21)
  • Twitter removed 100 accounts allegedly associated with Russia, the company announced Feb. 23. "Today we’re disclosing two separate networks that have Russian ties. Our first investigation found and removed a network of 69 fake accounts that can be reliably tied to Russian state actors. … These accounts amplified narratives that had been previously associated with the IRA and other Russian influence efforts targeting the United States and European Union," Twitter said. (TASS, 02.23.21)

Elections interference:

  • No significant developments.

Energy exports from CIS:

  • The State Department in a report to Congress didn't name new companies as targets for sanctions related to an $11 billion pipeline designed to transmit Russian natural gas to Germany, allowing work on the pipeline to continue unabated for now. Some Republican lawmakers criticized the State Department over the Nord Stream 2 report, which was required by Congress, and both Republicans and a key Democrat requested an explanation of the administration's position. The report was expected to provide a list of companies involved in pipeline construction and are therefore subject to U.S. sanctions. Instead, the State Department named two entities previously sanctioned by the Trump administration—the main pipe-laying vessel and its owner—along with 18 companies, mostly insurers, that already have left or were leaving the project. The failure to name any new targets for sanctions allows the work to continue while also providing the administration with time for discussions. (Wall Street Journal, 02.21.21)
  • The U.S. imposed additional sanctions on a Russian vessel and the ship’s owner for their work on Nord Stream 2, but the move was immediately criticized as inadequate by Republican lawmakers. The sanctions were announced in a report submitted to Congress by the State Department late on Feb. 19. Rep. Michael McCaul and Sen. Jim Risch were unimpressed that the administration failed to impose any sanctions on additional targets, notably people and firms in Germany, which is a strong Nord Stream 2 proponent. (RFE/RL, 02.20.21)
  • State Department spokesperson Ned Price said the Biden administration still opposes Nord Stream 2. “We continue to examine entities involved in potentially sanctionable activity. We have been clear that companies risk sanctions if they are involved in Nord Stream 2,” Price said. “We have the same position that the previous administration had. It is a bad deal, it is a bad deal for Europe, it is in contravention of Europe’s own stated energy goals,” he added. (Foreign Policy, 02.22.21)
  • The voyage of the Christophe de Margerie from Jiangsu in China to the remote Arctic terminal of Sabetta was made in the Arctic winter dark and through thick sea-ice, marking the first time that a commercial vessel has sailed the Northern Sea Route in February. The 299-meter-long LNG carrier operated by Sovcomflot set out from the Chinese port on Jan. 27 and a few days later sailed through the Bering Strait where it soon teamed up with nuclear icebreaker 50 Let Pobedy. The two ships subsequently sailed together across the vast Arctic route to the Yamal Peninsula. On Feb. 19, the LNG carrier entered the port of Sabetta. (Barents Observer, 02.24.21)
  • Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba and Polish Foreign Minister Zbigniew Rau have appealed to Biden to prevent the completion of Nord Stream 2, which they called a "dangerous, divisive project." (RFE/RL, 02.22.21)

U.S.-Russian economic ties:

  • No significant developments.

U.S.-Russian relations in general:

  • Even as it seeks to rejoin a global council focused on protecting human rights, the U.S. must first aggressively address its own abuses—particularly against people of color, women, religious minorities and its LGBTQI community, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Feb. 24. Blinken also demanded that Russia, China and Myanmar be held accountable for oppression and atrocities against people living under their rule. (New York Times, 02.24.21)
  • Lavrov lambasted the West for failing to unite globally in the fight against the pandemic and its economic fallout in an address to the U.N. Human Rights Council on Feb. 24. Lavrov criticized the West for refusing to suspend sanctions in the wake of the global economic downturn triggered by the coronavirus outbreak. (AFP, 02.24.21)
  • The FBI on Feb. 26 added Kremlin-linked catering magnate Yevgeny Prigozhin to its wanted list with a reward of up to $250,000 for information leading to his arrest, a move that he called “a witch hunt.” The FBI accuses Prigozhin of “conspiracy to defraud the United States” by sponsoring the Internet Research Agency, the St. Petersburg-based “troll factory” that allegedly carried out an online campaign to influence U.S. elections and politics. (The Moscow Times, 02.26.21)
  • New York’s professional ice hockey team says star forward Artemi Panarin has been targeted for his support of Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny in what the team called a “fabricated story” in a Russian tabloid alleging he assaulted a woman almost a decade ago. (RFE/RL, 02.23.21)
  • When asked by Pew what should be given top priority as a long range U.S. foreign policy goal, 75 percent of U.S. respondents said it should be protecting the jobs of American workers, 71 percent said protecting the U.S. from terrorist attacks and 71 percent also said reducing the spread of infectious diseases, while 64 percent said preventing the spread of weapons of mass destruction. Limiting the power and influence of Russia ranked 10th on the list of priorities in the poll, which allowed multiple choice answers, with 42 percent of Americans holding that view. Within that number, there was a sizable partisan gap; 50 percent of Democrats placed limiting Russia as a top priority, putting it 7th on the list of Democratic priorities. However, only 33 percent of Republicans listed limiting Russia as a top priority. According to Pew, other issues affecting the U.S.-Russian relationship, such as preventing the spread of weapons of mass destruction, received more bipartisan support. (Russia Matters, 02.25.21)

 

II. Russia’s domestic policies

Domestic politics, economy and energy:

  • Russia registered 11,086 new cases of COVID-19 and 428 deaths in the past 24 hours, the coronavirus response headquarters said in a statement Feb. 26. (Interfax, 02.26.21) 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.
  • Russia has approved its third domestically produced coronavirus vaccine, although large-scale clinical trials have yet to be completed. The first 120,000 doses of the CoviVac vaccine, produced by the state-run Chumakov Center, are expected to reach Russians by March. (RFE/RL, 02.21.21)
  • Russia has reported the first case of a bird-flu strain, H5N8, being passed from birds to humans. Officials said seven workers at a poultry farm in southern Russia had been infected following an outbreak in December. (RFE/RL, 02.21.21)
  • Russia's prison authority has confirmed that opposition political leader Alexei Navalny has been moved from the Moscow detention center where had been held since mid-January to another prison. Earlier, the Moscow city court upheld a ruling that Navalny violated the terms of a suspended sentence for fraud he received in 2014 by not immediately returning to Russia from Germany after recovering from nerve agent poisoning last summer. Judge Dmitry Balashov struck two months off Navalny’s sentence. (RFE/RL, 02.26.21, Financial Times, 02.20.21)
    • Amnesty International has withdrawn its “prisoner of conscience” designation from Navalny due to past nationalist and anti-immigrant rhetoric, the human rights organization said Feb. 23. (The Moscow Times, 02.26.21)
  • Putin signed a handful of new laws Feb. 24 that impose heavy fines on protesters and “foreign agents,” as well as on social media giants accused of “discriminating” against Russian media. The law takes effect March 1. (The Moscow Times, 02.24.21)
  • More Russians are opposed to Putin’s re-election today than at any other point since the 2014 annexation of Crimea, an independent survey said Feb. 26. According to the Levada Center polling agency, 41 percent of Russian respondents said they would not like Putin to remain president beyond 2024, while 48 percent said they would. (The Moscow Times, 02.26.21)
  • According to a recent Levada Center poll, levels of confidence in Putin have increased slightly this year. When asked to name politicians they trusted most, 32 percent of respondents named Putin in February 2021 compared to 29 percent in January 2021. While considerably higher than their trust in other political figures, Russians’ confidence in Putin this year was substantially lower than the historical high of 59 percent he enjoyed in November 2017. Trust in Putin declined in nine of the 15 polls that took place after November 2017, according to Levada. (Russia Matters, 02.26.21)
  • A growing number of Russians get their news from social media and the internet, according to a survey published by the Levada Center Feb. 23. Forty-two percent of Levada’s Russian respondents use social media to get their daily news, while 39 percent get it from the internet. While television remains the primary news source for Russians, with 64 percent saying they watch television for news, the figure represents a 21 percent drop from 2018. (The Moscow Times, 02.23.21)
  • Moscow police have blocked supporters of slain opposition politician Boris Nemtsov from laying flowers at the site of his death on a bridge steps away from the Kremlin. (The Moscow Times, 02.24.21)
  • Chechnya's top court has ruled that the arrest of two young gay men was legal amid growing concern over their safety and lack of legal representation in the North Caucasus region know for abuses against LGBT people. (RFE/RL, 02.25.21)
  • A Russian court has sentenced a mother and her son to prison as part of ongoing persecution of the Jehovah's Witnesses religious group. (RFE/RL, 02.24.21)
  • Unit four of the Beloyarsk nuclear power plant, Russia's BN-800 reactor, has been connected to the grid and resumed operations upon completion of scheduled maintenance. For the first time the refueling has been carried out with uranium-plutonium fuel only. (World Nuclear News, 02.24.21)

Defense and aerospace:

  • Russia’s state arms export agency, Rosoboronexport, announced earlier this week that it signed export contracts with African states worth as much as $1.5 billion in 2020. (The National Interest, 02.23.21)
  • The Russian Federal Service for Military-Technical Cooperation has confirmed that it has received a number of requests from foreign customers for the Su-57E multirole fighter aircraft, an official spokesman of the Service told at the IDEX-2021 defense exhibition in Abu Dhabi. (Defense Blog, 02.25.21)
  • S-400 Triumf air defense launchers of the Eastern Military District went on combat duty in Sakhalin, the Russian Defense Ministry said. (TASS, 02.25.21)

Security, law-enforcement and justice:

  • No significant developments.

 

III. Russia’s relations with other countries

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

  • European Union foreign ministers agreed Feb. 22 to impose sanctions on four senior Russian officials close to Putin in a mainly symbolic response to the jailing of Navalny. The proposed new travel bans and asset freezes, which are expected to be formally approved by the EU in early March, would target Alexander Bastrykin, whose Investigative Committee handles investigations into major crimes; Igor Krasnov, who became Russia’s prosecutor-general a year ago; Viktor Zolotov, head of Russia’s National Guard; and Alexander Kalashnikov, head of the federal prison service, diplomats said. (Reuters, 02.22.21)
  • The African Union will pay three times more for Russia’s Sputnik V jab than it is paying for the Oxford/AstraZeneca and Novavax vaccines, according to people familiar with the procurement process. Instead of looking to the U.S. for help, Latin America is so far relying on Washington's global rivals when it comes to coronavirus vaccines: China and Russia. (Wall Street Journal, 02.24.21, Wall Street Journal, 02.26.21)

China-Russia: Allied or Aligned?

  • A Russian national has been sentenced to eight years in prison for treason by handing state secrets to China, a court in Siberia announced Feb. 25. Vladimir Vasilyev had pleaded guilty to passing state secrets to China’s intelligence services, the state-run TASS news agency quoted an unnamed law enforcement source as saying. He is at least the third Russian citizen to be convicted of state treason this year and the 10th in the past two years. (The Moscow Times, 02.25.21)
  • The Russian armed forces have ordered dozens of Chinese Haval H9 SUVs and plans to place an additional order for several hundred civil vehicles. (Defense Blog, 02.25.21)

Ukraine:

  • On Feb. 22, a Ukrainian serviceman was killed and another was wounded in the area of the Joint Force Operation in Donbass as a result of shelling from Russian-occupation forces, Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces of Ukraine Ruslan Khomchak said. (Interfax, 02.22.21)
  • "The United States does not, and will never, recognize Russia’s purported annexation of the peninsula, and we will stand with Ukraine against Russia’s aggressive acts. We will continue to work to hold Russia accountable for its abuses and aggression in Ukraine," Biden said. (RFE/RL, 02.26.21)
  • Defense Ministers of Ukraine and the U.S. Andriy Taran and Lloyd Austin discussed the Ukrainian defense reform in a telephone conversation on Feb. 19. Taran invited Austin to take part in the celebration of the 30th anniversary of Ukraine's independence. Taran said that he will hold a telephone conversation with the Defense Ministers of the U.S., U.K., Canada, Poland and Lithuania on Feb. 22. (Interfax, 02.22.21, Interfax, 02.19.21)
  • Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy has officially appointed former finance minister Oksana Markarova as the country’s new ambassador to the United States as he seeks improved ties with Washington. (RFE/RL, 02.25.21)
  • The U.S. is continuing to increase the military potential of Ukraine, Russian presidential press secretary Dmitry Peskov said. This may provoke Kyiv to try to solve the problem of Donbass using aggressive methods, Peskov said. (Interfax, 02.20.21)
  • Zelenskiy has signed a decree that brings into force sanctions against Viktor Medvedchuk, a political heavyweight and tycoon, and other Ukrainian politicians who have close ties to Putin. The sanctions freeze the assets of Medvedchuk and his wife for three years and prevent them from doing business in Ukraine. Ukraine’s National Security and Defense Council accused Medvedchuk of “financial terrorism.” Ukraine has also said an oil pipeline that transports Russian oil products to Europe and is reportedly controlled by Medvedchuk will be nationalized. (RFE/RL, 02.19.21, UBN, 02.22.21)
  • Ukraine’s Security Service announced on Feb. 25 that it has put a pro-Kremlin blogger and politician on its wanted list after he failed to show up for questioning. Anatoliy Shariy was charged earlier this month with high treason and hate speech and ordered to come in for questioning on Feb. 22. (RFE/RL, 02.25.21)
  • Ukraine has accused Russia of targeted assassinations of "perceived opponents" in a case lodged at the European Court of Human Rights. The case accuses Russia of carrying out "state-authorized" assassinations "in Russia and on the territory of other states... outside a situation of armed conflict," the court said Feb. 23. (AFP, 02.23.21)
  • Ukraine on Feb. 22 accused unnamed Russian internet networks of massive attacks on Ukrainian security and defense websites, but gave no details of any damage done or say who it believed was behind the assault. (Reuters, 02.22.21)
  • Ukraine’s security service has reportedly thwarted attempts by a Russian spy to get secrets about the Ukrainian tank program in Kharkiv. (Defense Blog, 02.22.21)
  • Carrying a 3,700 kilogram payload, an unmanned Cygnus cargo spacecraft was to dock Feb. 22 with the International Space Station. Ukrainian design and equipment largely built the first—or lower—stage of the Antares rocket that successfully launched Feb. 20 from Wallops Island Space Flight Center, Virginia, Pivdenne Design Bureau reports from Dnipro. (UBN, 02.22.21)
  • The Ukrainian state arms conglomerate UkrOboronProm announced Feb. 22 that it has been awarded an $85.6 million contract to support the fleet of T-80UD main battle tanks of the Pakistani armed forces. (Defense Blog, 02.22.21)
  • A Florida judge has suspended the U.S. government's asset forfeiture trial against two Ukrainian tycoons, Ihor Kolomoyskiy and Hennadiy Boholyubov, and their American associates amid concerns its continuation could harm an ongoing criminal investigation into their activities. (RFE/RL, 02.22.21)
  • Some 500 doses of coronavirus vaccine, produced by the Serum Institute of India, arrived at Boryspil airport in Kyiv on Feb. 23, a day after it was officially registered for use in the country. The vaccine, developed by the University of Oxford and the British-Swedish company AstraZeneca, has been approved by the World Health Organization. (RFE/RL, 02.23.21)
  • After doing nothing about the $5.5 billion that oligarch and former owner of PrivatBank Ihor Kolomoisky allegedly stole from his bank, the Ukrainian state has named the former CEO of the bank as a suspect in the related fraud investigation on Feb. 22. Prosecutors have named former PrivatBank CEO Oleksandr Dubilet along with his first deputy, Volodymyr Yatsenko, as suspects in the embezzlement of 136 million Ukrainian hryvnia ($4.8 million) in 2016 before the bank was nationalized. (bne IntelliNews, 02.23.21)

Russia's other post-Soviet neighbors:

  • Thousands of opposition supporters marched through Yerevan demanding the resignation of Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan as tensions remained high in the Caucasus country a day after the premier claimed an "attempted coup" by senior military officers. The Armenian General Staff top brass urged Pashinyan to resign over his handling of the Karabakh war. The General Staff accused Pashinyan and his government of bringing the country “to the brink of collapse” and said it “will no longer be able to make adequate decisions in this critical situation for the Armenian people." The call came after Pashinyan demanded the ouster of Tigran Khachatrian, the first deputy chief of the general staff, over his disparaging of Pashinyan’s claim that most of the Russian-made Iskander missiles that Armenia employed in the past Karabakh war malfunctioned. (RFE/RL, 02.26.21, Russia Matters, 02.26.21, Defense Blog, 02.24.21, RFE/RL, 02.25.21)
  • In a sign of Moscow's growing concern about the developments in Armenia, the Kremlin on Feb. 26 reiterated that Armenia should comply with agreements reached with Azerbaijan. But Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov sought to calm fears, telling a briefing that he saw "no threat" of a breakdown of the Nagorno-Karabakh deal. Peskov's statement came a day after Putin called for calm during a phone call with Pashinyan. (RFE/RL, 02.26.21)
  • Russia is helping Armenia reform its military following the country’s deadly war with Azerbaijan last year over Nagorno-Karabakh, Armenian Defense Minister Vagharshak Harutyunyan said. (The Moscow Times, 02.24.21)
  • Former Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili says he is not surprised by the current political turmoil engulfing the South Caucasus nation. In an interview, he argued that it's the result of an ongoing crackdown on opponents of the government, including himself. Police stormed the party offices of opposition leader Nika Melia and detained him on Feb. 23, ratcheting up a crisis that gathered momentum when the prime minister resigned last week. (RFE/RL, 02.24.21)
  • A bipartisan group of U.S. lawmakers said a raid on the headquarters of a major opposition party in Georgia and the arrest of the party’s leader was “profoundly troubling” and called for his immediate release, along with all other political prisoners. Two senators and two members of the House of Representatives issued a statement on Feb. 23 after Nika Melia, leader of the major opposition party United National Movement (ENM), was detained when police stormed his party's offices in a dawn raid. (RFE/RL, 02.24.21)
  • A court in Georgia has sentenced a Russian citizen to four years in prison for involvement in an alleged plot to kill Georgian journalist Giorgi Gabunia. Magomed Gutsiyev was arrested by Georgian authorities in June with documents identifying him as Vasambek Bokov. (RFE/RL, 02.20.21)
  • Putin and Belarusian leader Alexander Lukashenko have held direct talks in Sochi to discuss economic ties, energy, security, integration, the Sputnik V vaccine and industrial cooperation. (bne IntelliNews, 02.23.21, RFE/RL, 02.22.21)
  • Russia is not against a multi-vector policy but it is possible only on condition of equality, respect and balance of interests, Lavrov said Feb. 19, commenting on Belarusian Foreign Minister Vladimir Makey’s words about his country’s multi-vector foreign policy. (TASS, 02.19.21)
  • A Belarusian man who was shot dead by an army officer at a protest rally in August last year has been posthumously found guilty by a court of disobeying a police order. Brest regional court Judge Svyatlana Kramyaneuskaya handed down the ruling on Feb. 25, adding that she would not sentence Henadz Shutau because he was dead. (RFE/RL, 02.25.21)
  • Belarusian opposition leader Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya has called on Belarusians to continue their protests with street rallies on March 25 against Lukashenko. (RFE/RL, 02.23.21)
  • “I don’t think you can overestimate their influence,” a diplomat who deals with Belarus said in reference to Nexta, an upstart media group run from Warsaw by Stsiapan Putsila, a 22-year-old blogger who had angered Lukashenko so much that he was already living in exile. “Without Nexta we would not have seen demonstrations on this scale. The authorities simply had no means of shutting them.” (Financial Times, 02.24.21)
  • The Constitutional Court in Moldova ruled in favor of the Socialist Party, which objected to President Maia Sandu repeatedly appointing the candidate of her pro-EU party Action and Solidarity as prime minister-designate. Sandu has been trying to force early elections by appointing her candidate Natalia Gavrilita in the expectation she will be rejected by the parliament. (bne IntelliNews, 02.24.21)
  • Kazakh President Qasym-Zhomart Toqaev has proposed a ban on the purchase and renting of farmland by foreigners ahead of the expiration of a moratorium on land sales later this year. (RFE/RL, 02.25.21)
  • About a dozen people, mainly women, have picketed the Chinese Consulate in Kazakhstan’s largest city, Almaty, to continue to push their demands for the release of relatives held in China's northwestern region of Xinjiang. (RFE/RL, 02.22.21)
  • Putin and Kyrgyz counterpart Sadyr Japarov have discussed bilateral ties in Moscow as Kyrgyzstan emerges from a political crisis. Japarov, who was elected president on Jan. 10, arrived in the Russian capital on his first foreign trip as the Central Asian state's leader on Feb. 24. (RFE/RL, 02.24.21)
  • Bolot Temirov, editor in chief of the Kyrgyz investigative website FactCheck, and Ruslan Ryaboshapka, who was forced out of his job as Ukraine's prosecutor-general last year in a parliamentary no-confidence vote, are among 12 people who have been recognized by the U.S. State Department as anti-corruption champions. (RFE/RL, 02.24.21)

 

IV. Quoteworthy

  • ''To be an independent journalist in Russia is like being a lobster in a pot,'' said Meduza's editor in chief, Ivan Kolpakov. ''They are boiling you, but you don't know exactly when you will die.” (New York Times, 02.21.21)