Russia in Review, July 31-Aug. 7, 2020
This Week’s Highlights
- Russia will use nuclear weapons if its territory comes under a ballistic missile attack because Russia’s early warning system won’t be able to tell incoming ballistic missiles armed with conventional warheads from ballistic missiles armed with nuclear warheads. This follows from a summary of Russia’s recently released “Basic Principles of State Policy of the Russian Federation on Nuclear Deterrence” that two senior Russian General Staff officers wrote for Krasnaya Zvezda. "Any attacking [ballistic] missile will be treated as a nuclear one," the officers wrote. “Arrival of reliable data on a launch of ballistic missiles attacking the territory of the Russian Federation and/or its allies” is listed in the aforementioned “Basic Principles” among conditions under which Russia can use nuclear weapons.
- U.S. Special Presidential Envoy for Arms Control Marshall Billingslea said he discussed progress in negotiations on strategic stability with Russia in a telephone call with Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov, according to Interfax. "We agreed to meet with our senior delegations in Vienna in the very near future," he said. "I believe that this [another round of consultations] will take place in the near future," Ryabkov said, TASS reports.
- Russians are receiving spam text messages offering huge rewards in exchange for information about their country’s efforts to interfere in the U.S. presidential election, The Moscow Times reports. The U.S. State Department said Aug. 7 that it was responsible for the text message campaign. Meanwhile, the State Department has also issued a new report that accuses Russia of developing a sophisticated “ecosystem” to spread disinformation and propaganda about the coronavirus and other issues, according to RFE/RL.
- On Aug. 5, Republican Sens. Ted Cruz, Tom Cotton and Ron Johnson warned the German company that operates the port of Mukran, a key staging post for ships involved in the Nord Stream 2 pipeline’s construction, that the company, its board members, corporate officers, shareholders and employees were at imminent risk of “crushing legal and economic sanctions,” including visa bans and asset freezes, if they did not cease their cooperation with the project, according to Foreign Policy.
- Trade between China and Russia in January-July 2020 declined 4.3 percent year-on-year to $58.83 billion, China's General Administration of Customs said Aug. 7, according to Interfax. At the same time, the first quarter of 2020 saw the dollar's share of trade between Russia and China fall below 50 percent for the first time on record, Nikkei reports.
- Thousands of people gathered in a park in Minsk on Aug. 6 in support of opposition presidential candidate Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya. The demonstrators marched across the city, clapping and chanting "Long live Belarus!" and "Go away!"—an apparent message for incumbent President Alexander Lukashenko, RFE/RL reports. The following day, Russian President Vladimir Putin told Lukashenko in a phone call that he wants Belarus to remain stable ahead of the Aug. 9 presidential election, according to AFP. Putin and Lukashenko also discussed the recent detainment of 33 mercenaries from the private Russian security firm Wagner Group in Belarus, RFE/RL reports. The Kremlin's press service said that during the talks "confidence was expressed that the situation [around the Wagner mercenaries] will be resolved in the spirit of mutual understanding."
I. U.S. and Russian priorities for the bilateral agenda
Nuclear security and safety:
- “Rosatom over the next eight years intend[s] to lift from the bottom of Russian Arctic waters the six objects that are most dangerous with regard to radioactive pollution,” the company spokesperson told TASS. These include two submarines and four reactor compartments at the bottom of the Barents and Kara Seas. (Barents Observer, 08.04.20)
North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs:
- No significant developments.
Iran and its nuclear program:
- The U.S. is planning next week to introduce a resolution in the U.N. Security Council that would extend a five-year ban on the sale of conventional weapons to Iran, part of the 2015 nuclear deal from which the U.S. withdrew in 2018, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said. Russia still calls against the U.S.-drafted resolution, a source with the Russian permanent mission to the U.N. said. (Wall Street Journal, 08.06.20, TASS, 08.05.20)
- Russia’s embassy in Tehran has declined to comment on reports carried by Iranian state television that the Tondar “Thunder” Iranian monarchist group was plotting to attack the Russian consulate in the northern Iranian city of Rasht. (bne IntelliNews, 08.03.20)
New Cold War/saber rattling:
- Russia will use nuclear weapons if its territory comes under a ballistic missile attack because Russia’s early warning system won’t be able to tell incoming ballistic missiles armed with conventional warheads from ballistic missiles armed with nuclear warheads. This follows from a summary of Russia’s recently released “Basic Principles of State Policy of the Russian Federation on Nuclear Deterrence” that two senior Russian General Staff officers wrote for Krasnaya Zvezda. "Any attacking [ballistic] missile will be treated as a nuclear one," head of a department at the General Staff's Main Operational Directorate department General Andrei Sterlin and leading research fellow at the General Staff Academy's Center for Military-Strategic Research Colonel Alexander Khryapin wrote. “Arrival of reliable data on a launch of ballistic missiles attacking the territory of the Russian Federation and/or its allies” is listed in the aforementioned “Basic Principles” among conditions under which Russia can use nuclear weapons. (Russia Matters, 08.06.20)
- Pompeo has warned Russia’s foreign minister against Moscow paying bounties to Taliban-linked militants and other Afghan fighters for killing American service members, U.S. officials said. Pompeo delivered the warning in a call on July 13 with Sergei Lavrov, choosing to do so during a conversation that, officially, was about an unrelated topic—the possibility of a meeting of the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council, the U.S. officials said in the past week. (New York Times, 08.07.20)
- Pompeo is set to visit Austria, the Czech Republic, Poland and Slovenia next week. In Prague, Pompeo's meetings will focus in part on "efforts to counter malign actions of Russia and communist China," state department spokesman Cale Brown said. In Poland on Aug. 8, Pompeo will be celebrating the 100-year anniversary of a Polish victory over the Bolsheviks. (Wall Street Journal, 08.06.20)
- Russia says a fighter jet intercepted two U.S. military surveillance planes in the Black Sea. Russian Defense Ministry officials said Aug. 5 that the Su-27 jet met the U.S. planes in international waters in the Black Sea. Another Su-27 was scrambled on Aug. 7 to intercept U.S. RC-135 and Р-8А Poseidon planes over the Black Sea, Russian defense officials said. Also, three Su-35S fighters of the Russian air force were scrambled to follow a U.S. Air Force B-1B bomber over the Sea of Okhotsk, Russian military officials said on Aug. 7, according to TASS. (RFE/RL, 08.05.20, TASS, 08.07.20, Russia Matters, 08.20.20)
- Approximately 200 soldiers assigned to a U.S. Army headquarters will begin serving in rotating tours in Poland, the U.S. Army said Aug. 4. The troops likely will begin rotating through Poland in the next year, the Army said, and are among 1,000 U.S. troops who eventually will be conducting regular rotations, though not permanent deployments, in Poland. The 1,000 will add to about 4,500 U.S. service members who now serve such rotating tours in Poland. The increased U.S. presence will include intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities and infrastructure. The new troops being sent to Poland are being assigned to a military headquarters operation known as the Fifth Corps, or V Corps. (Wall Street Journal, 08.04.20)
- No significant developments.
- U.S. Special Presidential Envoy for Arms Control Marshall Billingslea said he discussed progress in negotiations on strategic stability with Russia in a telephone call with Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov. "We agreed to meet with our senior delegations in Vienna in the very near future," he said. "I believe that this [another round of consultations] will take place in the near future," Ryabkov said Aug. 4. (Interfax, 08.06.20, TASS, 08.04.20)
- Russia has urged the U.S. to sit down at the negotiating table and discuss in the bilateral format the issues of biological warfare implemented by the American side along the perimeter of Russian borders, deputy head of the Russian Foreign Ministry’s Information and Press Department Alexey Zaytsev said Aug. 6. (TASS, 08.06.20)
- U.S. President Donald Trump called Aug. 2 for Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev to be re-sentenced to death after an appeals court overturned the death penalty. (AFP, 08.03.20)
Conflict in Syria:
- Russia condemns Israeli airstrikes in Syria and calls on both sides to show restraint, the Russian foreign ministry said Aug. 4. Israeli military jets struck a number of targets in Syria on Aug. 3, nearly 24 hours after thwarting an attempt by a militant cell to plant explosive devices in the Golan Heights along the border with Syria. (TASS, 08.04.20, The Washington Post, 08.04.20)
- Russian Special Presidential Envoy for Syria Alexander Lavrentyev and Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Vershinin discussed with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad the interaction on providing humanitarian aid to needy Syrians and the reconstruction of the country’s basic infrastructure, according to a Russian Foreign Ministry statement. (TASS, 08.03.20)
- A judge in Paris has ordered a French trial for Alexander Vinnik, a Russian suspected of money laundering on the bitcoin exchange BTC-e, also wanted by Washington and Moscow. Vinnik was extradited to France in January from Greece, where he had been arrested on an American warrant in 2017. (AFP, 08.03.20)
- Russians are suspected of hacking into a former British trade minister’s e-mail and leaking classified U.S.-U.K. trade documents ahead of Britain's 2019 elections, Reuters reported Aug. 3. Reuters said the hack of Liam Fox's account and subsequent leak is one of the most direct examples of suspected Russian attempts to meddle in British politics. (RFE/RL, 08.03.20)
- Russians are receiving spam text messages offering huge rewards in exchange for information about their country’s efforts to interfere in the U.S. presidential election. The U.S. State Department said on Aug. 7 that it was responsible for the text message campaign that left a trail of confusion and ridicule across Russia and Iran. In an email, a spokesperson for the department said the unsolicited text messages—which promoted a multimillion dollar bounty for information about cyber threats to the upcoming U.S. election—were aimed at building awareness internationally. (Reuters, 08.07.20, The Moscow Times, 08.07.20)
- The U.S. has accused Russia of developing a sophisticated “ecosystem” to spread disinformation and propaganda about the coronavirus and other issues. A new report published Aug. 5 by the U.S. State Department does not mention if Russia is waging another online influence campaign ahead of November’s election. “Russia tries to hide its affiliation with these different proxy sites. That’s what makes them effective, is that it’s difficult for just an average person who is online to look at these sites and know that it’s actually Russian disinformation,” said Lea Gabrielle, head of the State Department’s Global Engagement Center. (RFE/RL, 08.06.20)
- U.S. intelligence officials have presented information to lawmakers and presidential campaigns indicating Russia is behind an ongoing disinformation push targeting former vice president and presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden, according to sources familiar with the matter. But Republicans are arguing that the intelligence shows an effort by Moscow to sow discord in the U.S. elections and that it is just part of a wider swath of foreign interference that U.S. intelligence is tracking from other countries, including China and Iran. (CNN, 08.07.20)
Energy exports from CIS:
- On Aug. 5, Republican Sens. Ted Cruz, Tom Cotton and Ron Johnson warned the German company that operates the port of Mukran, a key staging post for ships involved in the Nord Stream 2 pipeline’s construction, that the company, its board members, corporate officers, shareholders and employees were at imminent risk of “crushing legal and economic sanctions,” including visa bans and asset freezes, if they did not cease their cooperation with the project. (Foreign Policy, 08.06.20)
- Poland has fined Russia’s state-controlled gas giant Gazprom for its lack of cooperation with an investigation by Warsaw’s anti-monopoly watchdog into the Nord Stream 2 pipeline. (Financial Times, 08.03.20)
U.S.-Russian economic ties:
- No significant developments.
U.S.-Russian relations in general:
- Anthony Fauci, the U.S.'s top infectious-disease expert, said during a House of Representatives COVID-19 subcommittee hearing on July 31 that the U.S. would likely not use vaccines developed in China or Russia. (Wall Street Journal, 08.01.30)
- Former U.S. Marine Paul Whelan, sentenced by a Russian court to 16 years on espionage charges that he rejects, has arrived at a penal colony in the region of Mordovia—an area historically known as the location of Russia's toughest prisons, including Soviet-era labor camps for political prisoners. (RFE/RL, 08.05.20)
- The new chief executive of the Voice of America’s parent agency, a Trump appointee named Michael Pack, has stopped renewing visas for VOA’s foreign staff. They include people from countries headed by authoritarian regimes who fear persecution once they are repatriated, among them journalists from Venezuela, China, Russia and Iran. (The Washington Post, 08.01.20)
- Former deputy U.S. attorney general Sally Yates told Congress on Aug. 5 that Trump's former national security adviser Michael Flynn in late 2016 had secretly "neutered" Obama administration actions toward Russia, prompting an investigation that consumed the early days of Trump's presidency. (The Washington Post, 08.05.20)
II. Russia’s domestic policies
Domestic politics, economy and energy:
- Russia confirmed 5,241 new coronavirus infections Aug. 7, bringing the country’s official number of cases to 877,135. Over the past 24 hours 119 people have died, bringing the total toll to 14,725—a rate considerably lower than in many other countries hit hard by the pandemic. Russia is the world's fourth most-affected country in terms of infections, behind the U.S., Brazil and India. (The Moscow Times, 08.07.20) 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.
- Researchers behind one of two Russian candidate vaccines against the coronavirus undergoing the approval process in that country say they plan to launch production in November, raising further questions about official Russian pledges to have a vaccination campaign well under way before then. The director-general of the Vektor State Research Center of Virology and Biotechnology, Rinat Maksyutov, predicted on Aug. 2 that his institution would start manufacturing a vaccine in November. (RFE/RL, 08.02.20)
- The World Health Organization on Aug. 4 urged Russia to follow the established guidelines for producing safe and effective vaccines after Moscow announced plans to start swiftly producing COVID-19 jabs. Russia said Aug. 3 it aims to launch mass production of a coronavirus vaccine in September and turn out "several million" doses per month by next year. (AFP, 08.04.20)
- In its annual assessment of global imbalances, IMF said trade balance losses were likely to exceed 3 percent of GDP for oil exporters such as Norway, Russia and Saudi Arabia. (Financial Times, 08.04.20)
- Foreign investors are piling back into Russian bonds, attracted by high yields and the country's relatively strong finances. Nonresidents bought $1.3 billion of Russian debt in April, according to data from the Institute of International Finance. The yield on the benchmark 10-year Russian bond is 5.8 percent according to FactSet. Meanwhile, inflation in the country is running at around 3 percent. Few emerging markets offer similar real yields and of those, most carry greater risk, in investors' view. Nonresidents held 30.6 percent of domestic Russian bonds through July 1, according to figures from the Russian central bank. (Wall Street Journal, 08.05.20)
- Dmitry Medvedev, deputy chairman of Russia’s Security Council, told a meeting of the Security Council on Aug. 3 that about 40 percent of migrants in Russia lost their jobs during the pandemic. (RFE/RL, 08.04.20)
Defense and aerospace:
- Deputy Defense Minister Alexei Krivoruchko said the share of advanced weaponry in Russian armed forces would reach 70 percent following the fulfillment of the defense procurement plan in 2020. (TASS, 08.05.20)
- Russia revealed plans this week to speed development of its S-70 Okhotnik (Hunter) stealth attack drone, with deliveries now scheduled for 2024 rather than 2025 as originally planned. (Forbes, 08.07.20)
Security, law-enforcement and justice:
- Russia’s Southern Military Court has sentenced four supporters of the Islamic State from the regions of Dagestan and Stavropol to between 12 and 19 years in jail. (TASS, 08.06.20)
- Seven members of the so-called New Greatness movement have been handed sentences ranging from 7 years in prison to 4-year suspended sentences. The Lyublino district court in Moscow on Aug. 6 convicted all seven defendants on charges of "organizing an extremist group intending to carry out crimes of extremist character." (RFE/RL, 08.06.20)
- The high-profile case of two sisters accused of killing their father in Moscow in 2018 will be tried by jury, a procedure allowed under Russian law in the case of serious crimes, a Moscow court announced on Aug. 3. The Moscow City Court ruled that the selection of the jury for the trial of Krestina and Angelina Khachaturyan will start on Aug. 31. (RFE/RL, 08.03.20)
III. Russia’s relations with other countries
Russia’s general foreign policy and relations with “far abroad” countries:
- Russia’s finance ministry said on Aug. 7 it had agreed to a round of negotiations with Cyprus on Aug. 10-11 in Moscow over the fate of a bilateral agreement aimed at avoiding double taxation. (Reuters, 08.07.20)
- Nearly 3,000 tons of a highly explosive fertilizer that caused the Aug. 4 devastating blast in Beirut came from a ship owned by a Russian businessman. Lebanese authorities in 2014 confiscated 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate from a Moldovan ship called the Rhosus, the country’s LBCI television channel reported, citing sources at a Supreme Defense Council meeting. The Rhosus is owned by Igor Grechushkin, a Russian national and resident of Cyprus. Cypriot police said Grechushkin was not arrested, but asked specific questions relating to the ship's cargo as requested via Interpol Lebanon. (The Moscow Times, 08.05.20, AFP, 08.06.20)
China-Russia: Allied or Aligned?
- Trade between China and Russia in January-July 2020 declined 4.3 percent year-on-year to $58.83 billion, China's General Administration of Customs said Aug. 7. China imported a total of $33 billion in goods from Russia in January-July, or 4.7 percent year-on-year less. China's exports to Russia decreased 3.7 percent over this period to $25.83 billion. (Interfax, 08.07.20)
- In the first quarter of 2020, the dollar's share of trade between Russia and China fell below 50 percent for the first time on record, according to recent data from Russia's Central Bank and Federal Customs Service. At the same time, the euro made up an all-time high of 30 percent, while their national currencies accounted for 24 percent, also a new high. (Nikkei, 08.06.20)
- The first batch of contestants from the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) arrived in Russia for the International Army Games 2020, according to the Russian Defense Ministry. The Chinese troops and equipment that included advanced Type 96 main battle tanks have arrived at the Zabaikalsk unloading station. (Defense Blog, 08.04.20)
- Ukraine’s economy shrank by 11 percent year-on-year during the second quarter, midway between the EU’s drop of 12.1 percent and the U.S. drop of 9.5 percent. The National Bank of Ukraine estimates that during the current quarter, the economy is performing 7.4 percent below last summer. The central bank has forecast that the fourth quarter drop will be 3.8 percent, making for a 6 percent drop for all of 2020. In 2021 and 2022, the bank predicts Ukraine’s economy will grow at an annual rate of 4 percent. (Ukraine Business News, 08.03.20)
- The U.S. Justice Department's Aug. 6 civil forfeiture complaint targeted commercial properties in Texas and Kentucky belonging to a company controlled by Ihor Kolomoisky. It came two days after FBI agents raided offices of Kolomoisky's and his partners in Miami and Cleveland. The civil complaint accuses Kolomoisky and his Ukrainian partner, Hennadiy Boholyubov, of stealing "billions of dollars" from their PrivatBank through bogus loans and laundering it into the U.S. Kolomoisky, has rejected allegations by the U.S. Justice Department and said that “all investments in the USA were made from personal funds received in 2007-2008” from the sale of Ukraine-based steel industry assets and “from the income of other businesses” with accounts at PrivatBank. (RFE/RL, 08.07.20, Financial Times, 08.07.20)
- Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy’s political party’s approval ratings in the polls slipped again to 26 percent, according to a survey by the Ratings Group released on Aug. 6. The poll also showed the number of Ukrainians that think the country is going in the “wrong” direction has risen to 68 percent since a low of 18 percent in the second quarter of 2019 when Zelenskiy was elected president in a landslide victory. (bne IntelliNews, 08.07.20)
- Head of Ukraine's delegation to the Trilateral Contact Group for Donbass and former Ukrainian President Leonid Kravchuk believes that Normandy format talks could be revised or called into question following Russian presidential administration deputy head Dmitry Kozak's letter about the absence of prospects of further talks between the Normandy Four leaders' advisors. (Interfax, 08.03.20)
Russia's other post-Soviet neighbors:
- Thousands of people gathered in a park in Minsk on Aug. 6 in support of opposition presidential candidate Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya after she had to cancel her campaign event following the city authorities' abrupt decision to replace her rallies in Minsk with government-organized events. The demonstrators marched across the city, clapping and chanting "Long live Belarus!" and "Go away!"—an apparent message for Lukashenko, whose 26 years of authoritarian rule looks increasingly vulnerable ahead of the Aug. 9 election. (RFE/RL, 08.07.20)
- Russian President Vladimir Putin said Aug. 7 he wants Belarus to remain stable ahead of a presidential vote on Aug. 9. The Kremlin released a statement after a phone call between Putin and Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko to discuss ties as Belarus ramped up tensions with its close ally ahead of the election. Putin and Lukashenko also discussed the recent detainment of 33 mercenaries from the private Russian security firm Wagner Group in Belarus. The Kremlin's press service said that during the talks "confidence was expressed that the situation [around the Wagner mercenaries] will be resolved in the spirit of mutual understanding." Lukashenko's press service said that the agreement was reached "to investigate every detail in the case to find out the real reasons of the situation, find responsible ones and hold them accountable." (AFP, 08.07.20, RFE/RL, 08.07.20)
- Lukashenko earlier accused Russia of trying to cover up an attempt to send 200 fighters from a private Russian military firm into Belarus on a mission to destabilize the country ahead of its August 9 presidential election. In an emotional address to the nation on Aug. 4, Lukashenko claimed the detained men had confessed to being sent to Belarus to “await instructions.” He also said that another group of “foreigners” had been deployed to southern Belarus and he accused his opponents of “attempting to organize a massacre in the center of Minsk”—without specifying who the alleged architects might be. During a televised address to the nation this week, Lukashenko said Belarus was important to Russia because Moscow "does not have any other close allies left.” Lukashenko has also ordered his government to invite Ukrainian and Russian prosecutors to Belarus to investigate the 33 mercenaries. (The Moscow Times, 08.05.20, Financial Times, 08.05.20, RFE/RL, 08.01.20, RFE/RL, 08.06.20)
- On Aug. 5, Medvedev warned Minsk that the arrest of the private security firm contractors could have grave consequences for Russian-Belarusian relations. (RFE/RL, 08.06.20)
- Maria Zakharova, Russia’s foreign ministry spokeswoman, said on Aug. 4 that “there is no proof of [the men’s] guilt” and accused Belarus of using the men in the service of “opportunistic interests” ahead of the vote. (Financial Times, 08.05.20)
- Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov rejected Minsk's claims that the group planned to interfere in Belarus's presidential election. He said the 33 men were detained while they were in transit to Istanbul before flying to "a third country.” Some of the 33 Russian mercenaries detained in Belarus told investigators they were on their way to Istanbul to see the Hagia Sophia, the head of Belarus’ Investigative Committee told Lukashenko. (RFE/RL, 08.01.20, The Moscow Times, 08.03.20)
- On Aug. 7, EU foreign-policy chief Josep Borrell issued a statement calling on the Belarusian authorities to ensure fundamental freedoms of expression and peaceful assembly and to guarantee candidates' full political rights. (RFE/RL, 08.07.20)
- Russian state nuclear corporation Rosatom reported about the start of fueling at the first unit of the Belarusian Nuclear Power Plant. (TASS, 08.07.20)
- Kazakhstan's JSC National Atomic Company Kazatomprom plans to return staffing levels at its uranium mines to normal by around the end of this month. The number of employees at the sites was reduced between April and July in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. (World Nuclear News, 08.04.20)
- About 500 migrants from Uzbekistan clashed with police in southern Russia as they tried to force their way toward the border into Kazakhstan, Russian media reported Aug. 4. Thousands of migrant workers, mostly from ex-Soviet states, have been stranded in Russia since late March, when countries closed their borders and halted international flights due to the coronavirus pandemic. Makeshift camps have reportedly appeared along Russia’s southern borders as they wait to go home. (The Moscow Times, 08.05.20)
- Tajikistan's parliament has set Oct. 11 as the date for the country's next presidential election. (RFE/RL, 08.06.20)
- "Ultimately our goal is to shift Russian behavior in a way that is much more favorable to advance our national interest," Thomas Graham said. "Has anything that the [Trump] administration has done . . . changed Russian behavior in any way favorable to the United States? I'd be hard put to say that it has." (The Washington Post, 08.01.20)