Russia in Review, July 26-Aug. 2, 2019

This Week’s Highlights:

  • With the INF Treaty dead, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov proposed that the U.S. and other NATO members declare "the same kind of moratorium on the deployment of short and intermediate range missiles as ours” while Jens Stoltenberg, NATO’s secretary-general, said: “we have no intention to deploy new land-based nuclear missiles in Europe.” The New York Times reports that the first deployments of the new U.S. missiles are likely to be intended to counter China, not Russia.
  • U.S. President Donald Trump has signed an executive order imposing fresh sanctions on Russia over the poisoning of a former Russian spy in England last year, the New York Times reports. The sanctions include opposing “the extension of any loan or financial or technical assistance to that country by international financial institutions” and would also “prohibit any United States bank from making any loan or providing any credit to the government of that country, except for loans or credits for the purpose of purchasing food or other agricultural commodities or products,” according to the Financial Times.
  • Some 57 percent of Americans view global climate change as the major threat to the well-being of the U.S., according to the Pew Research center. Some 74 percent view cyberattacks from other countries as the major threat, while 50 percent view Russia as such a threat. Currently, 65 percent of Democrats say Russia’s power and influence is a major threat to U.S. well-being, compared with just 35 percent of Republicans, according to Pew.
  • Iranian naval chief Rear Adm. Hossein Khanzadi revealed July 29 that his forces are joining their Russian counterparts for drills "expected to take place soon" in "the northern Indian Ocean, which flows into the Sea of Oman, the Strait of Hormuz and also the Persian Gulf," according to Newsweek.
  • Two out of five Russians do not wish to see Russian President Vladimir Putin remain president after his current term expires in 2024, according to a Levada Center poll. The overall level of poverty in Russia has risen from 13.9 percent in the first quarter of 2018 to 14.3 percent in the first quarter of 2019, totaling 20.4 million people, and according to a new poll by the Foundation of Public Opinion, 24 percent of Russian respondents said their financial situation had worsened in the past two to three months, The Moscow Times reports.

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

Nuclear security and safety:

  • In a paper published July 26 in the journal PNAS, a team of more than seven dozen researchers have concluded that a radioactive cloud that drifted over Europe in 2017 likely originated in Russia, possibly from the Mayak nuclear reprocessing facility located in the Urals region. (RFE/RL, 07.30.19)
  • The International Atomic Energy Agency says it aims to appoint a new director-general in October following the death of its previous head, Yukiya Amano, two weeks ago. (RFE/RL, 08.01.19)

North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs:

  • No significant developments.

Iran’s nuclear program and related issues:

  • Russia's Ministry of Foreign Affairs said on Aug. 1 it had the impression that the U.S. was looking for a pretext for conflict in the Persian Gulf, the state-run RIA news agency reported. (Reuters, 08.01.19)
  • The Russian Defense Ministry and the General Staff of the Iranian Armed Forces signed a memorandum of understanding that seeks to expand military ties between the two countries on July 29 during Iranian Navy Commander Hossein Khanzadi’s three-day visit to St. Petersburg. Khanzadi revealed July 29 that his forces join their Russian counterparts for drills "expected to take place soon" in "the northern Indian Ocean, which flows into the Sea of Oman, the Strait of Hormuz and also the Persian Gulf." (Newsweek, 07.30.19. Al Monitor, 07.30.19)
  • Representatives of the Russian embassy in Tehran have visited three Russian crew members from the British vessel Stena Impero who were detained by Iran. (RFE/RL, 07.27.19)

New Cold War/saber rattling:

  • No significant developments.

Military issues, including NATO-Russia relations:

  • No significant developments.

Missile defense:

  • No significant developments.

Nuclear arms control:

  • The U.S. formally withdrew from the INF Treaty on Aug. 2 after determining that Moscow was in violation of the treaty, a claim the Kremlin has repeatedly denied. (The Moscow Times, 08.02.19)
    • The new U.S. missiles are unlikely to be deployed to counter the treaty’s other nuclear power, Russia, which the U.S. has said for years was in violation of the accord. Instead, the first deployments are likely to be intended to counter China, which has amassed an imposing missile arsenal and is now seen as a much more formidable long-term strategic rival than Russia. (New York Times, 08.02.19)
    • On Aug. 1, just as his aides were confirming the American withdrawal from the INF Treaty, U.S. President Donald Trump told reporters that Russia “would like to do something on a nuclear treaty” and added later, “So would I.” But he appeared to be discussing a broader treaty that would involve China—which has said it has no intention of negotiating a limit on its arsenal. In fact, the administration has argued that China is one reason Trump decided to exit the INF Treaty. "Going forward, the U.S. calls upon Russia and China to join us in this opportunity to deliver real security results to our nations and the entire world," U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Aug. 2. Pompeo also said Russia was “solely responsible” for the demise of the pact. (New York Times, 08.02.19, Wall Street Journal, 08.02.19)
    • A senior U.S. official said the Pentagon was preparing to conduct a flight test of a conventional (non-nuclear) cruise missile that would be fired from a mobile launcher. The first, perhaps as early as this month, is expected to be a test of a version of a common, sea-launched cruise missile, the Tomahawk. (New York Times, 08.02.19, Financial Times, 08.02.19)
    • Russian President Vladimir Putin says Russia does not want an arms race and he has promised he will not deploy Russian missiles unless the U.S. does so first. However, should Washington take such a step, Putin says he would be forced to deploy Russian hypersonic nuclear missiles on ships or submarines near U.S. territorial waters. (The Moscow Times, 08.02.19)
    • "We have proposed to the U.S. and other NATO countries that they weigh the possibility of declaring the same kind of moratorium on the deployment of short and intermediate range missiles as ours, like the one announced by Vladimir Putin," Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov was quoted as saying. (Reuters, 08.02.19)
    • Vladimir Shamanov, the head of the parliamentary committee on defense, said Russia would no longer abide by the framework of the agreements. “Let them leave the agreement, we have our own response," he said, speaking to Russian news agencies. (Wall Street Journal, 08.02.19)
    • NATO repeated its support for the U.S. decision to abandon the INF Treaty on Aug. 2. The NATO statement said blandly that the alliance had “agreed a balanced, coordinated and defensive package of measures to ensure NATO’s deterrence and defense posture remains credible and effective.”  (New York Times, 08.02.19, Financial Times, 08.02.19)
    • Jens Stoltenberg, NATO’s secretary-general, said on Aug. 2 that the Russian request to declare a moratorium on the deployment of short and intermediate-range nuclear missiles in Europe was not credible because Moscow had already deployed such warheads. In earlier comments he also said: “We don’t want a new arms race, and we have no intention to deploy new land-based nuclear missiles in Europe.” (Wall Street Journal, 08.01.19, New York Times, 08.02.19, Reuters, 08.02.19)
    • A European Commission spokesperson on Aug. 2 urged the U.S. and Russia to seek further reductions to their nuclear arsenals. European diplomats say most EU countries would be in range of the new missiles that Russia has deployed in the west of the country. A senior U.S. official said the missiles could target the entire territory of Western Europe. (Financial Times, 08.02.19)
    • António Guterres, U.N. secretary-general, said the demise of the INF meant “the world will lose an invaluable brake on nuclear war.” (Financial Times, 08.02.19)
  • The U.S. may be planning to quit the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test Ban Treaty, using accusations of Russian non-compliance as a pretext, a Russian diplomat told the world's main arms talks forum on July 30. (Reuters, 07.30.19)
  • U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren tweeted: “Threatening to use nuclear weapons first makes America less safe because it increases the chances of a miscalculation or an accident. There are no winners in a nuclear war, and the U.S. should never start one.” (The Washington Post, 08.02.19)
  • Tulsi Gabbard said during the second round of debates among Democratic presidential candidates: “Donald Trump and warmongering politicians in Washington … continue to escalate tensions with other nuclear-armed countries like Russia and China and North Korea, starting a new Cold War, pushing us closer and closer to the brink of nuclear catastrophe. Now, as we stand here tonight, there are thousands of nuclear missiles pointed at us. And if we were to get an attack right here tonight, we would have 30 minutes, 30 minutes before we were hit.” (The Washington Post, 08.02.19)

Counter-terrorism:

  • U.S. Rep. John Ratcliffe, U.S. President Donald Trump's pick to serve as the next director of national intelligence, has made his name in Congress as one of the GOP's most dogged critics of perceived anti-Trump bias at the FBI and in the special counsel's investigation of his alleged Russia ties. (The Washington Post, 07.29.19)
  • A court in Russia's Republic of Tatarstan has arrested two men suspected of supporting the Islamic State and planning a terrorist attack. (RFE/RL, 08.01.19)

Conflict in Syria:

  • The trilateral Russia-Iran-Turkey summit on Syria is scheduled for September this year, senior aide to the Iranian foreign minister Ali Asghar Haji said. Representatives of Russia, Iran and Turkey have begun a fresh round of talks on finding a solution to the situation in war-ravaged Syria. The two-day talks kicked off on Aug. 1 as part of the so-called Astana negotiations track. (TASS, 08.02.19, RFE/RL, 08.01.19)
  • The Russian air force has destroyed nearly 30 armored vehicles and 12 multiple rocket launchers belonging to militants in the southwestern part of the Idlib de-escalation area over the past one and a half months, Russian Col. Gen. Sergei Rudskoi said at a news briefing. (Interfax, 07.29.19)
  • The U.N. has ordered an investigation into a surge of Russian and Syrian airstrikes against hospitals and clinics in northwestern Syria amid growing concerns that Russia is using U.N.-supplied data to deliberately target medical facilities. (The Washington Post, 08.02.19)
  • The U.S. is "pumping weapons" into Kurdish and Arab units in the areas beyond the Euphrates in Syria, Russian Col. Gen. Sergei Rudskoi said. (Interfax, 07.29.19)
  • The presumed orchestrator of the terrorist attack that occurred in the St. Petersburg metro in April 2017, Sirozhiddin Mukhtarov, is currently in Syria, according to information obtained by investigators. (Interfax, 07.25.19)

Cyber security:

  • Russia has tested its high-speed military internet that can send encrypted data over long distances, the pro-Kremlin Izvestia newspaper reported Aug. 1. Encrypted signals, including large audio and video files, were sent across more than 2,000 kilometers over dedicated radio channels at a speed of 300 megabits per second. (The Moscow Times, 08.01.19)
  • One of the world’s most secure email services has been caught up in a sophisticated cyberattack aimed at investigative journalists and other experts who are probing Russian intelligence activities. Those targeted have used Swiss-based ProtonMail to share sensitive information related to their probes of Moscow’s military intelligence directorate, the GRU. The Bellingcat investigative news organization says staff members have been targeted in sophisticated cyberattacks through their ProtonMail accounts. (Financial Times, 07.26.19, RFE/RL, 07.28.19)

Elections interference:

  • No significant developments.

Energy exports:

  • Russia wants to strike a short-term deal with Ukraine on gas transit to Europe when the current 10-year agreement expires to buy time to complete pipelines that will bypass Ukraine. (Ukraine Business News, 07.29.19)

Bilateral economic ties:

  • No significant developments.

Other bilateral issues:

  • U.S. President Donald Trump has signed an executive order imposing fresh sanctions on Russia over the poisoning of a former Russian spy in England last year. According to the executive order signed by Trump, the sanctions include opposing “the extension of any loan or financial or technical assistance to that country by international financial institutions.” They would also “prohibit any United States bank from making any loan or providing any credit to the government of that country, except for loans or credits for the purpose of purchasing food or other agricultural commodities or products.” The ruble plunged the most since May and Russian borrowing costs jumped after Trump signed the executive order. (The Moscow Times, 08.02.19, Financial Times, 08.02.19, Bloomberg, 08.02.19)
  • The U.S. government told private-equity firm Pamplona Capital Management last year to sell out of a Virginia cybersecurity firm, Cofense Inc. U.S. officials raised national-security concerns about the level of foreign money behind Pamplona and the nature of Cofense's business. Several fund investors in Pamplona have been wealthy Russians. One whom the Committee on Foreign Investment in the U.S. (Cfius) has had concerns with is Mikhail Fridman. Allegations that he is part of Russian President Vladimir Putin's inner circle were a concern for Cfius. (Wall Street Journal, 07.30.19)
  • Russia’s Foreign Ministry has softened its refusal to issue visas for teachers at a Moscow school run by the U.S., British and Canadian embassies amid signs of a slight thaw in tensions between the Kremlin and Washington. The Foreign Ministry on Aug. 1 issued seven of the 30 visas requested. (Bloomberg, 08.01.19)
  • U.S. President Donald Trump has offered to help Russia battle widespread forest fires in Siberia as he seeks to repair Washington’s fractious relationship with Moscow. Putin expressed his “sincere gratitude” to Trump for the concern and said he may accept the offer if the situation demands it. (RFE/RL, 07.31.19)
  • Some 57 percent of Americans view global climate change as the major threat to the well-being of the U.S., according to the Pew Research center. Some 74 percent view cyberattacks from other countries as the major threat, while 50 percent view Russia as such a threat. Currently, 65 percent of Democrats say Russia’s power and influence is a major threat to U.S. well-being, compared with just 35 percent of Republicans, according to Pew. (Pew/Russia Matters, 07.30.19)

II. Russia’s domestic news

Politics, economy and energy:

  • Authorities in Moscow are warning that a planned attempt to hold an unauthorized protest on Aug. 3 will bring a strong police response. Five more people have been detained as part of criminal proceedings into mass civil unrest related to last weekend’s opposition protest in Moscow, bringing the total number of detainees up to 10, TASS reported on Aug. 2. On July 27 police in Moscow detained more than 1,300 people in a day of protests against alleged irregularities in the run-up to local elections. The U.S., the EU and human rights groups denounced what they called the "disproportionate” and “indiscriminate” use of force against the demonstrators, who were protesting against the refusal of election officials to register several opposition figures as candidates in municipal polls in September. (RFE/RL, 07.28.19, The Moscow Times, 08.02.19, AP, 08.02.19)
  • Two out of five Russians (38 percent) do not wish to see Russian President Vladimir Putin remain president after his current term in office expires in 2024, according to a Levada Center poll. Half (54 percent) of the respondents would want to see Putin remain president, while the number of undecided respondents stands at a record-low 8 percent. (Intellinews, 07.30.19)
  • The overall level of poverty in Russia has moved up from 13.9 percent in the first quarter of 2018 to 14.3 percent (20.4 million people) in the first quarter of this year, according to Russia’s State Statistics Service. Twenty-four percent of Russian respondents said their financial situation had worsened in the past two to three months, according to the results of a Foundation of Public Opinion poll published July 30. (The Moscow Times, 07.31.19, Intellinews, 07.30.19)
  • Aleksei Tokarev, chief physician of the Moscow Sklifosovsky Medical Center, says laboratory tests performed on unspecified biomaterial taken from opposition politician Alexei Navalny have excluded poisoning as a reason for his recent hospitalization. Russian labs are “afraid” to test samples taken from Navalny after he was briefly hospitalized with an acute allergic reaction which he claims was the result of poison, his personal doctor Anastasia Vasilyeva has said. (RFE/RL, 07.31.19, The Moscow Times, 08.02.19)
  • Russian opposition politician Alexei Navalny's anti-corruption watchdog has revealed that the family of Natalia Sergunina, one of Moscow's deputy mayors, owns property worth 6.5 billion rubles ($102.3 million). (RFE/RL, 08.02.19)
  • More people have died from HIV-related causes in Russia last year than in 2017 as the country grapples with a rise in infections, according to Health Ministry data cited by Kommersant. (The Moscow Times, 07.31.19)
  • Russia scrambled its military transport planes and helicopters across the country on Aug. 1 to fight wildfires that have engulfed more than 7 million acres in Siberia and beyond. The head of Russia’s meteorological service says he sees global climate change as a factor behind the wildfires. (AP, 08.02.19, New York Times, 08.01.19)
  • Russia’s international reserves are now well beyond the $500 billion informal target that the Central Bank had set itself as a comfortable reserve level. (Intellinews, 07.30.19)
  • Russia may limit foreign ownership in its most important Internet companies to 20 percent in the latest in a series of steps by the government to tighten online control. (RFE/RL, 07.27.19)
  • Mikhail Mishustin, head of the Russian tax service, chose to seek to improve revenues by adopting and refining the most cutting-edge systems around the world.  The authorities receive the receipts of every transaction in Russia, from St Petersburg to Vladivostok, within 90 seconds. The information has exposed errors, evasion and fraud in the collection of its consumption tax, VAT, which has allowed the government to raise revenues more quickly than general Russian economic performance. (Financial Times, 07.29.19)
  • Yelena Shebunova, former associate of Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, has allegedly earned 6.5 billion rubles ($101.9 million) from deals with the ministries of defense and emergency situations, according to an investigation by Russia’s The Insider news website. (The Moscow Times, 08.01.19)

Defense and aerospace:

  • Russia’s first fifth generation fighter, the Sukhoi Su-57, has entered serial production. Under the terms of a contract signed last June, United Aircraft Corporation will produce 76 Su-57s, with the first jet likely to enter service before the end of 2019. (Popular Mechanics, 07.31.19)
  • More than 10,500 Russian soldiers and dozens of warships will take part in the country’s second annual naval drills in the Baltic Sea, the Russian Defense Ministry has said. (The Moscow Times, 08.01.19)

Security, law-enforcement and justice:

  • Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev has ordered police to investigate if bushfires currently burning across more than 3 million hectares in Siberia were started deliberately to conceal illegal logging activity. (The ABC, 08.02.19)
  • Russian authorities have dropped charges against a suspect detained on suspicion of killing LGBT rights activist Yelena Grigoryeva in St. Petersburg and say they have taken another person into custody in the case. (RFE/RL, 08.01.19)

III. Foreign affairs, trade and investment

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

  • French President Emmanuel Macron said he has invited Russian leader Vladimir Putin for talks at the Bregancon fort off the country’s Mediterranean coast on Aug. 19, days ahead of hosting a G7 summit. (RFE/RL, 07.28.19)
  • A visit on Aug. 2 by Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev to an island claimed by both Japan and Russia was extremely regrettable, Japan's foreign ministry said, urging Moscow to take constructive steps to advance ties. (Reuters, 08.02.19)
  • Russia's media regulator says it will amend existing legislation in order to impose fines on British and other foreign media organizations working in Russia for breaking impartiality standards in retaliation for London fining Russia's RT TV channel. (RFE/RL, 08.01.19)

China:

  • Russian timber exports to China grew to $3.5 billion last year, from $2.2 billion in 2013, the year before the Ukraine crisis, according to Russian trade statistics. The Chinese, in turn, re-export some Russian wood as furniture, doors, flooring, cladding and other finished goods for sale around the world. (New York Times, 07.27.19)

Ukraine:

  • About 3.2 million Ukrainians permanently work abroad, about 18 percent of the nation’s economically active population, Hromadske reports, citing a new macroeconomic study drafted for the Finance Ministry. Last December, in a nationwide poll by Rating, 35 percent of the 40,000 respondents said they want to work abroad. (Ukraine Business News, 07.30.19)
  • U.S. President Donald Trump, in a telephone conversation with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, expressed his hope that the new authorities in Ukraine will soon be able to improve the country's image and complete corruption inquiries. "Trump and Zelenskiy agreed to discuss practical issues of the Ukrainain-United States cooperation more substantively during the Ukrainian head of state's visit to the United States," according to Zelenskiy’s official site. Zelesnkiy says that during their telephone conversation he thanked Trump for the U.S. support for Ukraine's territorial integrity. (Interfax, 07.29.19)
  • Russia has closed one-quarter of the Black Sea for almost a month, reports Ukrainian Military Portal, a civilian defense news site. The five blocks—totaling 118,570 square kilometers—will force cargo ships passing from Turkey’s Bosporus strait to Ukraine’s Black Sea ports to pass through a narrow shipping lane. (Ukraine Business News, 07.29.19)
  • A Ukrainian court has ordered the seizure of a Russian tanker stopped last week over its alleged involvement in a Ukrainian-Russian naval clash last year, the country's chief military prosecutor said July 30. (AFP, 07.30.19)
  • Ukraine's security service says a former police officer has been detained in the southern region of Zaporizhzhya on suspicion of spying for Russia. (RFE/RL, 07.31.19)
  • A senior aide to Ukraine's president says Kiev plans to launch a worldwide Russian-language television channel in an attempt to counter Russian state-controlled media broadcasts to people living in separatist controlled parts of eastern Ukraine and in Russia. (RFE/RL, 07.30.19)
  • Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy has confirmed that his chief of staff, Andriy Bohdan, has filed his resignation letter just two months after taking the post, but that the president has not signed it. (RFE/RL, 08.02.19)
  • Naftogaz Group, Ukraine’s state-run oil and gas conglomerate, on July 31 filed a lawsuit for a $5.2 billion damage claim over assets that Russia seized during its annexation of Crimea in March 2014. (RFE/RL, 08.01.19)

Russia’s other post-Soviet neighbors:

  • In the northeastern part of the border of Armenia, an Armenian soldier was allegedly shot dead by gunfire from the Azerbaijani side on July 28, Armenian Defense Ministry spokesman Artsrun Ovannisyan said in a Facebook post. (RFE/RL, 07.28.19)

IV. Quoteworthy

  • No significant developments.