Russia in Review, July 28-Aug. 3, 2018

This Week's Highlights:

  • A bipartisan group of U.S. senators has introduced legislation imposing ''crushing'' new punishments on Russia, including the “nuclear option” of penalizing projects involving Russian sovereign debt. The bill also targets Russian energy projects, calls for a report on Putin’s finances and proposes that Russia may be designated a state sponsor of terrorism.
  • The U.S. Senate has passed a bill requiring annual reports to Congress on the state of relations between China and Russia.
  • Russia has signed a deal to sell previously banned space rocket engines to the United States.
  • Vladimir Putin has created a new directorate inside the Russian army to promote patriotism, evoking memories of a Soviet practice that once saw soldiers taught the precepts of Marxism and Leninism by political commissars.
  • For the first time since 2014, the number of Russians who said they had “positive” feelings toward the United States (42 percent) outweighed those who reported “negative” feelings (40 percent). 
  • A struggling economy and an embezzlement scandal have jeopardized a $520-million barrier that Ukraine planned to build on its border with Russia.
  • The U.S.-Russia Polar Bear Commission increased the possible hunting quotas for bears in the Chukchi Sea from 58 to 85 bears.

 

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

Nuclear security and safety:

  • The Lepse service vessel, Russia’s waterborne atomic graveyard, has inched a step closer to complete dismantlement as officials say they will begin extracting nuclear fuel rods from its irradiated holds next month at the Nerpa Shipyard near Murmansk. (Bellona, 08.01.18)
  • Technicians in northwest Russia have begun to load the reactors of the Akademik Lomonosov, Russia’s first waterborne nuclear power plant, with their uranium fuel in preparation for its journey to the Far East. (Bellona. 08.02.18)
  • The U.S. Senate on Aug. 1 gave final congressional approval to the $716 billion National Defense Authorization Act for FY2019.The bill drops an effort to loosen Cabinet control over the National Nuclear Security Administration, the agency responsible for securing the nation’s nuclear weapons stockpile. (AP, 08.02.18)

 North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs:

  • Russia's ambassador to North Korea said on Aug. 3 that Moscow had not violated U.N. sanctions restricting the employment of North Korean laborers and had not brought in any new workers from the country. The Wall Street Journal reported on Aug. 2 that Russia is allowing thousands of new North Korean laborers into the country and granting new work permits in potential violation of U.N. sanctions. (Reuters, 08.03.18)
  • The U.S. Treasury on Aug. 3 targeted a Russian bank for "facilitating a significant transaction" on behalf of a person with ties to North Korea’s banned weapons program. The newly sanctioned bank is Agrosoyuz Commercial Bank of Moscow. (RFE/RL, 08.03.18)

Iran’s nuclear program and related issues:

  • Iranian officials have sharply rebuffed U.S. President Donald Trump's offer to meet with his Iranian counterpart to discuss ways of improving ties between the two countries, saying such talks would have "no value" and be a "humiliation." (RFE/RL, 07.31.18)

Military issues, including NATO-Russia relations:

  • The U.S. Senate on Aug. 1 gave final congressional approval to the $716 billion  National Defense Authorization Act for FY2019. On Russia, it continues limitations on military cooperation, prohibits any recognition of the annexation of Crimea, highlights concerns over treaty violations and expresses the need to enhance deterrence. The bill also allows the president to waive penalties against countries that purchase weapons from sanctioned Russian defense companies if they are seeking closer ties with Washington. Under the waiver provision, the president must certify that a country is both reducing arms imports from Russia and is expanding defense cooperation with the United States. At the same time, the bill aims to punish Turkey for its recent move to buy the S-400 missile-defense system from Russia. (Breaking Defense, 08.03.18, RFE/RL, 08.02.18)
  • Hundreds of American troops in Africa would be reassigned and the number of Special Operations missions on the continent would be wound down under plans submitted by a top military commander, a response to the Trump administration's strategy to increasingly focus on threats from China and Russia. (New York Times, 08.01.18)
  • A group of U.S. senators has introduced legislation that would cut off Donald Trump's ability to remove the United States from NATO without the support of the Senate. (New York Times, 08.02.18)

Missile defense:

  • No significant developments.

Nuclear arms control:

  • No significant developments.

Counter-terrorism:

  • A car ran down a group of touring cyclists in the Central Asian state of Tajikistan over the weekend, killing four people from the United States, the Netherlands and Switzerland. On July 30, the Islamic State claimed responsibility for the attack. (New York Times, 07.30.18)

Conflict in Syria:

  • U.N. peacekeepers have returned for the first time in years to the frontier between Syria and the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights and are conducting joint patrols there with Russian military police, the Russian Defense Ministry has announced. (RFE/RL, 08.03.18)
  • Russia announced on Aug. 1 that it had reached an agreement with Israel to keep pro-Iranian fighters 85 kilometers from its border, in the first publicized results of recent Russian mediation efforts. Russian officials announced that Moscow had given Israel guarantees that the zone would be clear of pro-Iranian fighters. TASS quoted a Russian envoy as saying that Iranian forces have withdrawn their heavy weapons in Syria to the agreed-upon distance from the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights; Israel, however, deemed the pullback inadequate. Russia's ambassador to Israel had warned it would be "unrealistic" to expect Iran to fully withdraw from Syria. (RFE/RL, 08.03.18, Reuters, 08.01.18)
  • Russia unveiled new efforts Aug. 1 to bring refugees back to Syria and called on the U.S. to help back its relocation efforts following a summit between President Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin in which both leaders backed the goal. (Wall Street Journal, 08.02.18)
  • The U.S. “has not fulfilled its own promises” made in Helsinki to remove opposition forces to enable a buffer zone on Syria’s border with Israel, the Russian Foreign Ministry said on July 31. (Bloomberg, 07.31.18)
  • The United States' refusal to attend an international meeting on Syria in Sochi is unfortunate and indicates Washington's desire to downplay the importance of "the Astana format," the Russian Foreign Ministry said on July 30. The next meeting is scheduled for November 2018, according to the draft final communique of the Sochi meeting. (TASS, 07.31.18, Interfax, 07.30.18)
  • American troops deployed in Syria are increasingly having to defend themselves against Russian jamming devices—electronic attacks with potentially lethal consequences, according to U.S. military officials and analysts. Officers who have experienced the jamming—known as electronic warfare—say it’s no less dangerous than conventional attacks with bombs and artillery. But they also say it’s allowing U.S. troops a rare opportunity to experience Russian technology in the battlefield and figure out how to defend against it. (Foreign Policy, 07.30.18)
  • Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced plans on July 29 to hold a summit of Russia, Turkey, Germany and France on a settlement in Syria. The summit is scheduled for Sept. 7 in Istanbul, CNN Turk reports. (TASS, 07.31.18)
  • A drone launched by militants from Syria’s Idlib de-escalation zone was downed by the Russian military near the Hmeymim airbase, chief of the Russian Reconciliation Center in Syria, Alexei Tsygankov, said on July 30. (TASS, 07.31.18)
  • Col. Gen. Alexander Zhuravlyov, who is now the commander of the Russian group of forces in Syria, may be appointed the commander of Russia's Western Military District, an informed source told Interfax on July 31. (Interfax, 07.31.18)

Cyber security:

  • According to intelligence officials and executives of the companies that oversee the world’s computer networks, there is surprisingly far more effort by Russian hackers directed at implanting malware in the electrical grid than in interfering in the midterm elections. The Cyber Command commander, Gen. Paul Nakasone, who is also the director of the National Security Agency, said that he had set up a small Russia group after assuming command in the spring, but said nothing about its operations. (New York Times, 07.29.18)
  • The D.C. city government was the target of a hacking attempt from overseas last week, said local officials who have referred the matter to federal authorities for investigation. (The Washington Post, 07.28.18)
  • Three Ukrainian men have been arrested for allegedly hacking more than 100 U.S. companies and stealing millions of customer records, U.S. officials say. The Justice Department on Aug. 1 alleged that the men are associated with the hacking group FIN7 and that they were arrested earlier this year in Europe. (RFE/RL, 08.02.18)
  • A Greek court has approved a supplementary request from Moscow to extradite a Russian cybercrime suspect, who is also wanted in France and the United States. Alexander Vinnik's lawyer, Ilias Spirliadis, said on July 30 that a court in Thessaloniki ruled in favor of Russia's request to take custody of the 39-year-old, suspected in cyberattacks and a multibillion-dollar fraud. (RFE/RL, 07.30.18)

Elections interference:

  • Led by Sens. Bob Menendez (D-NJ) and Lindsey Graham (R-SC), a group of U.S. senators introduced legislation late Aug. 1 to impose ''crushing'' new punishments on President Vladimir Putin of Russia and his associates. The bill, dubbed the “Defending American Security from Kremlin Aggression Act of 2018,” has also garnered support from Republicans Cory Gardner and John McCain and Democratic senators Ben Cardin and Jeanne Shaheen. (New York Times, 08.02.18, Financial Times, 08.02.18)
    • The bill would mandate that the United States assemble a report on Putin's finances and assets. (New York Times, 08.02.18, Financial Times, 08.02.18)
    • The bill penalizes projects involving Russian sovereign debt. One congressional source said proposals making it hard for Russia to issue sovereign debt could have “crippling” implications for its economy. While the earlier CAATSA legislation left it to the Treasury to assess whether this measure was feasible or too damaging to the U.S. itself, the draft legislation would seek to force the administration to deploy this nuclear option. (New York Times, 08.02.18, Financial Times, 08.02.18)
    • The bill proposes to sanction individuals who invest in energy projects supported by “a Russian parastatal entity” worth more than $250 million, and those who provide “goods, services, technology, financing or support” to crude-oil projects in Russia, including repair or construction work. (Financial Times, 08.02.18)
    • The bill would ban any transactions in U.S. property by seven of Russia’s largest banks, including Sberbank, the state-owned market leader. (Financial Times, 08.02.18)
    • The bill would require the State Department to determine whether Russia should be designated a state sponsor of terrorism. (New York Times, 08.02.18)
    • The bill would make title-insurance companies reveal the owners of shell companies when they make all-cash real-estate purchases anywhere in the U.S. (Wall Street Journal, 08.03.18)
    • After the bill was announced, the ruble fell 0.9 percent against the dollar and Russia’s main stock index dropped to a week low. Citi economists forecast this week that the new bill’s measures could lead to the ruble’s value falling 5 percent against the dollar (Financial Times, 08.02.18)
    • U.S. senators’ proposals for punishing new sanctions against Russia have met a muted response in Moscow, where investors are shrugging off fears that the new measures could prompt a repeat of April’s market sell-off. With President Donald Trump keen to forge ties with Russian President Vladimir Putin, business leaders in Moscow are skeptical that the bill could pass through Congress—and if it does, they doubt the new legislation would have a lasting effect. (Financial Times, 08.03.18)
  • Senior Trump administration officials warned on Aug. 2 that Russia is trying to interfere in November’s midterm elections and the 2020 presidential election and vowed to combat Moscow’s aggression. (New York Times, 08.02.18)
    • Russia is trying to spread propaganda on hot-button issues using social media, Dan Coats, the director of national intelligence, has said. The target of most Russian activity, intelligence officials say, is social media and other digital avenues for spreading disinformation.  (New York Times, 08.02.18)
    • FBI director Christopher Wray said the FBI, which has taken a lead role in addressing foreign influence operations, has opened investigations in field offices around the country. Wray also said the U.S. is improving its intelligence-sharing efforts. The threat of foreign influence was "both broad and deep," he said. (Wall Street Journal, 08.03.18)
    • Gen. Paul Nakasone, commander of U.S. Cyber Command and director of the National Security Agency, suggested that U.S. intelligence agencies are conducting offensive cyber operations to deter Russia's election interference. (Wall Street Journal, 08.03.18)
  • President Trump pushed his lawyers in recent days to try once again to reach an agreement with the special counsel’s office about his sitting for an interview, flouting their advice that he should not answer investigators’ questions, three people briefed on the matter said Aug. 1. Mueller, whose team has negotiated the parameters of an interview with Trump’s lawyers for eight months, sent his latest proposal in a letter on the night of July 31, the three people said. (New York Times, 08.01.18)
  • President Trump on Aug. 1 urged Attorney General Jeff Sessions to end the Russia investigation "right now": "This is a terrible situation and Attorney General Jeff Sessions should stop this Rigged Witch Hunt right now, before it continues to stain our country any further," Trump wrote in a series of Twitter posts. (Wall Street Journal, 08.01.18)
  • President Trump's lawyer Rudolph Giuliani declined on July 30 to explain the president's allegation that special counsel Robert Mueller has a conflict of interest because of a past business relationship with Trump. In a series of tweets about the Russia investigation on July 29, Trump claimed that Mueller has multiple conflicts of interest, including "the fact that we had a very nasty & contentious business relationship." (The Washington Post, 07.30.18)
  • Vice President Pence on July 31 affirmed the U.S. intelligence community's assessment that Russia sought to influence the 2016 election. "While other nations certainly possessed the capability, the fact is Russia meddled in our 2016 elections," Pence said, speaking at a government cybersecurity conference hosted by the Department of Homeland Security. Pence noted that the FBI has formed a Foreign Influence Task Force to identify secret foreign attempts to infiltrate the United States and undermine democracy. (The Washington Post, 07.31.18)
  • Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen on July 31 called out the Russian government for its effort to undermine faith in U.S. democracy and for what she called a "brazen, multifaceted" campaign to influence the 2016 elections. DHS has launched the Election Infrastructure Information Sharing and Analysis Center, which all 50 states have joined, in an effort to prevent intrusions and attacks. (The Washington Post, 07.31.18)
  • Facebook says it has discovered "sophisticated" efforts, possibly linked to Russia, to manipulate U.S. politics ahead of November's congressional elections, setting off a fury among politicians in Washington. The social media giant said late on July 31 that it could not connect the efforts directly to Russia or to the midterm elections, which are less than 100 days away, but legislators briefed by Facebook said the methodology used by the perpetrators pointed to Russian involvement. (RFE/RL, 08.01.18)
  • Two years after Russia interfered in the American presidential campaign, the nation has done little to protect itself against a renewed effort to influence voters in the coming congressional midterm elections, according to lawmakers and independent analysts. They say that voting systems are more secure against hackers, but Russian efforts to manipulate U.S. voters through misleading social media postings are likely to have grown more sophisticated and harder to detect, and there is not a sufficiently strong government strategy to combat information warfare against the United States. (The Washington Post, 08.01.18)
  • On Aug. 1, Republicans in the Senate voted down an amendment to an appropriations bill that would have allotted $250 million to states to improve election security before the midterms. (New York Times, 08.02.18)
  • Special counsel Robert Mueller has been investigating Tony Podesta—a prominent Democratic lobbyist whose brother ran Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign—for about a year for failing to disclose some of his lobbying ties to Russia. On Aug. 1, CNN reported that Mueller had handed the probe to prosecutors for the Southern District of New York—the same office investigating President Trump’s long-time personal lawyer Michael Cohen. Two other lobbyists, Gregory Craig, who served as White House counsel for Barack Obama, and Vin Weber, a former Republican congressman from Minnesota, are also reportedly part of the inquiry. According to CNN, all three men were ensnared in the Mueller probe because of their ties to former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort. (Vanity Fair, 08.01.18)
  • Special Counsel Robert Mueller wants to interview Emin Agalarov, an Azerbaijani-Russian pop star and former son-in-law of Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev, a lawyer for Agalarov says. (RFE/RL, 08.03.18)
  • A closely watched British parliamentary committee examining Russia's exploitation of social media to try to influence elections has called for sweeping new regulations on tech companies, and has accused Facebook of providing ''disingenuous answers'' to some questions, while avoiding others ''to the point of obstruction.'' (New York Times, 07.29.18 )
  • Special Counsel Robert Mueller wants to interview Emin Agalarov, an Azerbaijani-Russian pop star and former son-in-law of Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev, a lawyer for Agalarov says. (RFE/RL, 08.03.18)
  • See also “Cyber security” above.

Energy exports:

  • Russia boosted oil production to levels not seen since it joined OPEC in a coordinated output cut, helping the group offset supply disruptions elsewhere. The world’s biggest energy exporter raised production last month to 11.215 million barrels a day, a jump of 148,000 barrels from a month earlier and just below the post-Soviet record set in October 2016. (Bloomberg, 08.02.18)
  • During Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte’s talks with Donald Trump in Washington on July 30, the U.S. president demanded assurances that a gas pipeline that transports Azeri gas to Europe, via southern Italy, would be finished despite environmental protests. The long-planned 2,000 mile TAP pipeline is intended to reduce dependency on Russian gas, and Trump told the Italian prime minister that he expected it to be completed. Conte said that his government “perfectly understood the strategic value. (Financial Times, 07.31.18)
  • See also “Other bilateral issues” below.

Bilateral economic ties:

  • Russia has signed a deal to sell previously banned space rocket engines to the United States at a time of heightened tensions between the two countries. “We signed a contract where we will supply six more RD-180 engines to our partners in 2020,” the head of Russia’s Energomash engine maker, Igor Arbuzov, told the state-run RIA Novosti news agency on July 31. (The Moscow Times, 08.01.18)

Other bilateral issues:

  • U.S. President Donald Trump and Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte have both said they have no plans to try to lift sanctions against Russia. At a White House news conference on July 30, Conte said lifting the European Union's sanctions, which were first imposed in 2014 over Russia's aggression in Ukraine, would be "unthinkable." Conte appeared to endorse Trump's decision to meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Helsinki two weeks ago, agreeing with him that "if you want to solve a problem, you cannot choose your counterparts." (The Washington Post, 07.30.18, RFE/RL, 07.31.18)
  • The U.S. Treasury Department says that it has extended the deadline for investors to divest holdings in the sanctioned Russian companies En+, GAZ Group and Rusal from Aug. 5 to Oct. 23. (Reuters, 07.31.18)
  • Back in 2014, when U.S. sanctions were imposed on Novatek, the Russian gas company’s hugely ambitious plan to build a $27 billion liquefied natural gas plant deep in the Arctic Circle became a project nobody wanted to touch. Today, some of the world’s biggest energy companies are battling each other for the right to buy a stake in the company’s next Arctic venture. (Financial Times, 08.01.18)       
  • A new poll shows the number of Russians who view the United States and European Union favorably has dramatically increased since May. For the first time since 2014, the number of Russians who said they had “positive” feelings toward the United States (42 percent) outweighed those who reported “negative” feelings (40 percent).  Also, 42 percent of respondents said they have a "very good" or "good" impression of the EU, compared to 28 percent in May. (RFE/RL, 08.02.18)
  • Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova told reporters Aug. 3 that Maria Butina is being kept in solitary confinement in a cold cell in Washington D.C. Zakharova claimed that prison officials are interrupting Butina's sleep, not feeding her properly and not letting her breathe fresh air. (AP, 08.03.18)
  • Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov will meet in Moscow on Aug. 6 with U.S. Senator Rand Paul, one of the only Washington legislators who applauded a recent summit between the U.S. and Russian presidents. (RFE/RL, 08.03.18, The Moscow Times, 08.02.18)
  • A suspected Russian spy was employed for more than a decade at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow before being fired last year, a senior administration official tells CNN. (CNN, 08.03.18)
  • A U.S. citizen has been detained in Russia's Far East after accidently sailing there from Alaska on a small boat, officials said Aug. 3. Russian media reported that the man requested political asylum and cited an unnamed official as saying he may be suffering from a mental disorder. (AP, 08.03.18, The Moscow Times, 08.03.18)
  • Polar bear hunters in remote villages on the coast of the Chukchi Sea will have higher hunting quotas next year, a sign of the health of the region’s bear population. The U.S.-Russia Polar Bear Commission increased the possible harvest level for bears in the Chukchi Sea from 58 to 85 bears. (AP, 08.03.18)
  • A U.S. citizen has been detained in Russia's Far East after accidently sailing there from Alaska on a small boat, officials said Aug. 3. (AP, 08.03.18)

II. Russia’s domestic news

Politics, economy and energy:

  • More than 6,000 people came to a July 29 rally some 1.5 miles from the Kremlin to protest a proposed increase to the retirement age and the crowd chanted slogans critical of President Vladimir Putin. (Reuters/The Moscow Times, 07.30.18)
    • A state-owned pollster, the Russian Public Opinion Research Center (VTsIOM), published a poll on July 22 that showed Russians’ confidence in Putin had fallen to 38 percent, the lowest level since December 2011. A poll by the Public Opinion Foundation showed that fewer than half of Russians would vote for Putin if a presidential election were held now, compared to more than 60 percent in October 2017-May 2018. Even fewer Russians approve of the government’s performance, according to Russia’s sole truly independent national pollster, the Levada Center—only 37 percent as of July 2018 compared to 47 percent in April. Some 40 percent of Russians thought their country was headed in the wrong direction as of July compared to 29 percent one year ago, according to Levada. (Russia Matters, 08.02.18)
    • The share of Russians who are willing to participate in political protests reached 23 percent in July—the highest level since such measurements began in August 2009, according to the the Levada Center. Some 37 percent of Levada’s July 2018 poll respondents specifically said they were willing to protest the increase in pension age and tens of thousands are doing so already. (Russia Matters, 08.02.18)
  • An explosive device damaged the entrance to a national Pension Fund office in western Russia as tensions reach fever pitch over government plans to raise the retirement age. Authorities in the city of Kaluga launched a criminal investigation Aug. 3. (The Moscow Times, 08.03.18)
  • Gasoline prices in Russia have been named the world’s 10th-cheapest in Bloomberg’s ranking of 61 countries released last week. (The Moscow Times, 07.30.18)
  • Regional branches of Russia’s Health Ministry and maternity hospitals across the country have been enforcing temporary “moratoriums” on abortion services, as part of a campaign spearheaded for the past several years by Svetlana Medvedeva, the wife of Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev. (Meduza, 08.03.18)

Defense and aerospace:

  • Vladimir Putin has created a new directorate inside the Russian army to promote patriotism, evoking memories of a Soviet practice that once saw soldiers taught the precepts of Marxism and Leninism by political commissars. (Reuters, 07.31.18)

Security, law-enforcement and justice:

  • Three Russians producing a documentary about mercenary forces close to the Kremlin were gunned down in the Central African Republic this week. The three journalists—Orkhan Dzhemal, Kirill Radchenko and Alexander Rastorguyev—were shot dead in an ambush while driving across the war-torn country. The news outlet they were working with said they were investigating Russian military contractors operating in CAR, where President Faustin-Archange Touadéra is looking to Russia as a provider of arms and military training amid a bloody civil war. Russia's Foreign Ministry said Aug. 3 that a preliminary investigation showed the three men were killed by assailants who wanted to rob them. Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the exiled former Russian oil tycoon, financed the documentary on the mercenaries, whom Russian media reports have linked to the conflicts in Syria and Ukraine as well. In April, a Russian journalist investigating the same private military contractor, known as Wagner, died after falling from a window of his fifth-floor apartment. (The Washington Post, 08.01.18, Reuters, 03.08.18, Russia Matters, 07.31.18)
  • A Russian scientist was detained on July 18 and placed under arrest for allegedly leaking secret documentation to Vietnam, his lawyer, Anna Polozova, was quoted as saying by the RBC news website on July 30. Alexei Temiryov, 64, is the second Russian scientist reportedly charged in July with sharing state secrets with another country. (The Moscow Times, 07.30.18)
  • A senior Russian prison official has apologized to an inmate whose torture sparked mass outrage this month after footage of it was leaked online. Yevgeny Makarov was allegedly beaten by at least 10 guards in the city of Yaroslavl in June 2017, according to body cam footage posted earlier this month. (The Moscow Times, 07.31.18)
  • A court in Russia's mainly Muslim-populated Bashkortostan region has sentenced 21 alleged members of a banned Islamic group to prison. Relatives of the defendants told RFE/RL that the 21 men were handed prison terms on July 30 ranging from five to 24 years after they were found guilty of being members of Hizb ut-Tahrir. (RFE/RL, 07.31.18)
  • Andrei Kovalchuk, who the Federal Security Service (FSB) claims was behind an alleged attempt to smuggle nearly 400 kilograms of cocaine from Argentina to Russia, has been extradited from Germany and is in a Moscow jail, his lawyer says. (RFE/RL, 07.30.18)

III. Foreign affairs, trade and investment

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

  • The European Union has imposed asset freezes on six Russian firms for their involvement in the construction of a new road-and-rail bridge linking Russia to the annexed Crimean peninsula, which the bloc says is illegal. The companies include three—PJSC Mostotrest, SGM and OOO Stroygazmontazh Most—controlled by billionaire Arkady Rotenberg, President Vladimir Putin’s former judo sparring partner. Construction firm CJSC VAD, engineering firm GPSM and the Zaliv Shipyard were also named. (Reuters, 07.31.18, The Moscow Times, 07.31.18)
  • Moscow is hoping to export its Kalibr cruise missile-armed Project 22800 Karakurt corvettes to Vietnam, China, India and others, according to Russian officials. However, if the Kremlin does choose to export the vessel and its Kalibr cruise missile armament, it might find itself in contravention of the Missile Technology Control Regime, which is a voluntary understanding among 35 states—including Russia—to limit the proliferation of missiles and missile technology. (National Interest, 08.02.18)
  • Japanese Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera said on July 31 that Tokyo had asked Russia to reduce its military activity on a disputed island chain in the Pacific after Moscow beefed up its forces there in response to what it sees as a potential threat. (Reuters, 07.31.18)
  • Slovak President Andrej Kiska says a recently established local base for the Night Wolves, a Russian motorcycle club known for its allegiance to the Kremlin, presents a security risk for the EU and NATO country. (RFE/RL, 07.31.18)
  • France has awarded detained Russian theater and film director Kirill Serebrennikov the Order of Arts and Letters. Serebrennikov is under house arrest awaiting trial on embezzlement charges that his supporters say are politically motivated. (RFE/RL, 08.02.18)
  • The BRICS countries have fulfilled an average 77 percent of promises made at their 2011-2017 summits—a rate of compliance very similar to that of the G7 over the same period. (Economist, 07.27.18)

China:

  • The U.S. Senate on Aug. 1 gave final congressional approval to the $716 billion  National Defense Authorization Act for FY2019. The law  requires that the annual report to Congress on China include details about Chinese espionage, the state of relations between China and Russia and efforts by China to influence U.S. citizens. (AP, 08.02.18, Breaking Defense, 08.03.18)

Ukraine:

  • A day after describing in detail how millions of dollars in payments from Ukrainian oligarchs enabled Paul Manafort to live in luxury through 2014, federal prosecutors outlined on Aug. 2 how his financial fortunes reversed so sharply in subsequent years that he made his Manhattan condominium available on Airbnb. The testimony fleshed out how Manafort's finances were altered by the loss of his main client, Viktor Yanukovych, the leader of Ukraine. By 2016, when he re-entered American politics by joining Trump's campaign, his financial troubles had grown acute. (New York Times, 08.02.18)
    • Paul Manafort made more than $60 million consulting for a Russia-backed political party in Ukraine, according to prosecutors investigating Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election. (The Washington Post, 07.30.18)
    • Documents filed last month by special counsel Robert Mueller showed that Alan Friedman worked closely with Manafort in creating the so-called Hapsburg Group. That was the informal name of a group of European politicians surreptitiously paid through overseas accounts controlled by Manafort, starting in 2011, to lobby American politicians to support Viktor Yanukovych, then the leader of Ukraine. (New York Times, 07.31.18)
    • Though the charges concern the work he did in Ukraine for former President Viktor Yanukovych, they don’t directly deal with Russia, nor with questions of Trump officials' interactions with Russian officials. (RFE/RL, 08.01.18)
    • President Trump called the prosecution of his former campaign chairman Paul Manafort "a hoax" on Aug. 1. Writing on Twitter, Trump dismissed the charges against Manafort as "old charges [that] have nothing to do with Collusion" and questioned why the government didn't tell him Manafort was under investigation before he hired him to be part of his 2016 campaign. (The Washington Post, 08.01.18)
    • Manafort voiced serious misgivings in 2005 when he was brought on by several Ukrainian oligarchs to rehabilitate Yanukovych after his loss the previous year in Ukraine's presidential election to Viktor Yushchenko, amid mass protests known as the Orange Revolution. (RFE/RL, 07.27.18)
  • Chief of the General Staff and commander-in-chief of the armed forces of Ukraine Viktor Muzhenko has thanked chief of the National Guard Bureau of the United States Joseph Lengyel for U.S. instructors' assistance in training Ukrainian servicemen. (Interfax, 07.30.18)
  • As many as 11,000 military officers have quit the Ukrainian army over low wages, the country’s Defense Minister Semyon Poltorak said in a message to Prime Minister Vladimir Groisman, as cited by Ukrmilitary.com. (TASS, 07.30.18)
  • Dubbed in its early days "Project Wall" and known also as "The European Rampart," the $520-million barrier Ukraine planned to build on its porous eastern frontier was intended to fortify a significant section of the border, while both literally and symbolically separating the country from its Soviet-era hegemon, Russia. But four years on, it's not exactly the bulwark the government planned. A struggling economy has forced a fourfold reduction in its budget and pushed its scheduled completion date to 2020. And an embezzlement scandal has put the entire project in question.  (RFE/RL, 07.29.18)
  • A court in Ukraine has sentenced an 84-year-old researcher to 12 years in prison after convicting him of gathering classified information he allegedly planned to hand over to Russia. Mekhti Logunov was convicted of treason by a court in the eastern Ukrainian city of Kharkiv on July 30, his lawyer, Maksym Shapovalov, said on July 31. (RFE/RL, 07.31.18)
  • Ukraine lost the bulk of a legal dispute against Russia on July 30, when a World Trade Organization dispute panel struck out many of its arguments about Russia refusing to import Ukrainian railway equipment, a major export earner for Kiev. (Reuters, 07.30.18)
  • Moscow sees no sense in holding another Normandy format summit until the agreement on disengagement in Stanytsya Luhanska in Donbas is fulfilled, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has said.  (Interfax, 07.30.18)
  • U.S. firm Best Western Hotels & Resorts, the last Western hotel chain still in Crimea, has pulled out because of sanctions imposed after Russia annexed the region from Ukraine, two hotel employees have said. (The Moscow Times, 08.03.18)
  • More than a million Ukrainians have taken advantage of the visa-free regime with the EU since the introduction of a simplified system in June 2017. (Interfax, 07.31.18)
  • A Crimean Tatar activist set himself on fire to protest a plan by Russia-imposed authorities to build a new apartment complex on Tatar land in the Crimean capital, Simferopol. (RFE/RL, 08.03.18)
  • Rights group Amnesty International says it has been denied access to Ukrainian filmmaker Oleg Sentsov, who is serving a 20-year prison term in Russia and has been on a hunger strike the past 81 days. (RFE/RL, 08.02.18)
  • The trial has opened in Sevastopol of two Ukrainian nationals, Volodymyr Dudka and Oleksiy Bessarabov, who are charged with plotting sabotage in Russia-annexed Crimea. (RFE/RL, 08.02.18)
  • See also “Russia’s general foreign policy and relations with ‘far abroad’ countries” above.

Russia’s other post-Soviet neighbors:

  • Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov says Moscow is "concerned" that Armenia's new leadership is making what he called politically motivated moves against former leaders who have been targeted in an anticorruption campaign. "The events of the last few days … contradict the recent declarations of the new Armenian leadership that it was not planning to pursue its predecessors on political grounds," Lavrov said on July 31. His remarks came after former Armenian President Robert Kocharian was charged with violently putting down protests against his successor in 2008. On the same day, Yuri Khachaturov, the Armenian head of the Russia-dominated Collective Security Treaty Organization, was charged, like Kocharian, with overturning Armenia's constitutional order in connection with the deaths of 10 protesters in 2008.  (RFE/RL, 08.01.18)
  • A senior Russian military official denied on Aug. 3 a Russian newspaper report that said Moscow could halt further arms supplies to Armenia because of a rare diplomatic dispute with Yerevan. Citing unnamed Russian defense industry executives, the Kommersant daily claimed on Aug. 2 that implementation of the most recent Russian-Armenian defense contracts is now “in serious doubt.” It pointed to Moscow’s angry reaction to Armenian law-enforcement authorities’ controversial decision to bring coup charges against Yuri Khachaturov, the secretary general of the CSTO. “This is incorrect information. I don’t confirm it,” Russia’s Deputy Defense Minister Alexander Fomin said, commenting on the report during a visit to Armenia. (RFE/RL, 08.03.18)
  • U.S. army units have arrived in Georgia to participate in international exercises called Noble Partner 2018 that will take place at the Vaziani military base near Georgia's capital, Tbilisi, Aug. 1-15. The exercises involve 3,000 soldiers from Georgia and the United States, as well as allied and partner nations. (RFE/RL, 07.28.18)
  • Georgia's Constitutional Court has abolished administrative punishments for the consumption of marijuana, making the Caucasus country the first former Soviet Republic to legalize the usage of the drug. (RFE/RL, 07.30.18)
  • Henadz Fyadynich, the leader of a prominent independent trade union that played a role in street protests in 2017 in Belarus, is being tried on tax-evasion charges he contends are politically motivated. (RFE/RL, 07.30.18)

IV. Quoteworthy

  • Seth Ackerman writing at Jacobin.com: “Wrong-footing Trump politically is a noble goal. But outside the self-enclosed vivarium that is the Twitter-cable-news-late-night-show axis, nobody actually cares about the Russia issue. In last month’s Gallup poll, less than 0.5 percent of Americans mentioned ‘the situation with Russia’ as the most important problem facing the country—coming in just behind ‘Children’s behavior/Way they are raised’ and far behind ‘Poverty/Hunger/Homelessness.’” (Wall Street Journal, 07.27.18)

 

Teaser photo: Vladimir Putin at the World Energy Congress, Istanbul, 2016, courtesy of the Kremlin press service.