Russia in Review, March 19-26, 2021

This Week’s Highlights

  • During his meetings in Brussels, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken joined other foreign ministers of NATO countries to underline that "Russia’s aggressive actions constitute a threat to Euro-Atlantic security," RFE/RL reports. While in Brussels, Blinken also said China's military rise and Russia's attempts to destabilize the West were threats that required NATO to come together. In a joint statement with EU high representative for foreign affairs Josep Borrell, Blinken said the EU and U.S. were determined to address Russia's “hybrid threats,” according to RFE/RL. Blinken also talked with NATO’s Jens Stoltenberg about “concern over Russia and China’s malign activity and disinformation efforts,” Financial Times reports. Blinken and Stoltenberg criticized Nord Stream 2 and Blinken told his German counterpart that companies involved in the project risked U.S. sanctions, according to Financial Times and RFE/RL.
  • During his first press conference, U.S. President Joe Biden compared Chinese President Xi Jinping to Russian President Vladimir Putin, calling them both supporters of autocracy, Reuters reports, while Moscow said it regretted that Washington did not respond to Putin's proposal to organize public talks with Biden, according to AFP.
  • Russia’s and China’s relations with the United States, the situation in Afghanistan and Myanmar and the Iran nuclear deal were among the topics of talks between Russian Foreign Ministry Sergei Lavrov and Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, the Russian foreign ministry said March 22, TASS reports. During the talks, they agreed it is necessary to convene a summit of the permanent members of the U.N. Security Council and they also agreed to automatically extend their Treaty of Good-Neighborliness and Friendly Cooperation for another five years, according to Interfax. 
  • European Council President Charles Michel has told Putin that relations between the European Union and Russia are “at a low point” with disagreements in “many areas,” RFE/RL reports. According to the Kremlin, Putin “gave an appraisal of the unsatisfactory state of Russia-EU ties” and stressed that Russia was ready to "resume normal depoliticized" ties with the EU. Meanwhile, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Russia has “no relations with the European Union,” bne IntelliNews reports. 
  • Russians are on average more optimistic than Americans toward the prospect of warmer relations between the countries, though both remain largely pessimistic, a new poll by the independent Levada Center said. If only 10 percent of American respondents said they believe U.S.-Russian ties would improve in the next decade, 19 percent of Russian respondents held that view.


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

Nuclear security and safety:

  • Rosatom, Russia’s state nuclear corporation, has announced a tender for disposing of reactor cores from the K-27 submarine, which was scuttled by the Soviet Navy in the Kara Sea four decades ago. (Bellona, 03.21.21)

North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs:

  • "We are watching closely the development of the situation on the Korean Peninsula, which has worsened recently following the United States’ and South Korea’s military drills and North Korea’s missile launches,” Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said. (TASS, 03.26.21)

Iran and its nuclear program:

  • Iran expects to start domestic production of Russia’s Sputnik V vaccine in April, the RIA news agency cited the Iranian ambassador to Moscow as saying March 26. (Reuters, 03.26.21)

Great Power rivalry/New Cold War/saber rattling:

  • As of early 2021, Hans M. Kristensen and Matt Korda estimate that Russia has a stockpile of roughly 4,460 nuclear warheads assigned for use by long-range strategic launchers and shorter-range tactical nuclear forces. Of the stockpiled warheads, approximately 1,630 strategic warheads are deployed: just over 800 on land-based ballistic missiles, about 624 on submarine-launched ballistic missiles and 200 at heavy bomber bases. Another 920 strategic warheads are in storage, along with about 1,910 nonstrategic warheads. In addition, a large number—approximately 1,760—of retired but still largely intact warheads await dismantlement, for a total inventory of approximately 6,220 warheads. (Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, 03.15.21)
  • Repeated attempts have been made to jam the GPS navigation systems used by U.K. Royal Air Force aircraft operating from an airbase in Cyprus. Two British newspapers have concluded that Russia is behind the actions and, in the past, Russia has also launched electronic warfare attacks against U.S. drones in Syria, and probably also against U.S. Air Force AC-130 gunships. (The Drive, 03.19.21)
  • Several tactical formations in Kaliningrad have been reorganized into a restored 18th Guards Motor Rifle division. As a result, the 11th Army Corps will likely go from fielding six motor rifle battalions to ten, and from the currently deployed about two tank battalions, with four planned post-2019, to six tank battalions in total. (Michael Kofman’s Russian Military Analysis Blog, 03.22.21)

NATO-Russia relations:

  • During their meeting in Brussels, NATO foreign ministers vowed the alliance will continue to adapt in the face of "rising threats and systemic competition," and underlined that "Russia’s aggressive actions constitute a threat to Euro-Atlantic security." "Assertive and authoritarian powers, and non-state actors, challenge the rules-based international order, including through hybrid and cyber threats, the malicious use of new technologies, as well as other asymmetric threats,” the ministers said in a joint statement issued March 23 after a first day of talks. (RFE/RL, 03.23.21)
  • U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, who is attending the two-day NATO gathering—the first face-to-face meeting of foreign ministers at the alliance since 2019—said China's military rise and Russia's attempts to destabilize the West were threats that required NATO to come together. (RFE/RL, 03.23.21)
  • In a joint statement issued March 24 following talks in Brussels, Blinken and the EU high representative for foreign affairs, Josep Borrell, said they were determined to address, in a coordinated manner, Russia's “hybrid threats, such as disinformation; interference in electoral processes; malicious cyber activities; and military posturing.” The two also “decided to coordinate their response to the shrinking space in Russia for independent political voices, civil society and media freedom.” They also agreed to relaunch a bilateral dialogue on China. (RFE/RL, 03.24.21)
  • Blinken and Jens Stoltenberg, NATO secretary-general, talked about “concern over Russia and China’s malign activity and disinformation efforts,” as well as arms control and regional security matters. (Financial Times, 03.23.21)
  • During his trip to NATO and the EU this week, Blinken gave no indication of when a decision on how many troops to withdraw from Afghanistan, and when, might be coming. (New York Times, 03.24.21)
  • Blinken encouraged NATO allies to continue to spend more on defense as they have promised, saying that a more modern and adaptable NATO needs more resources. ''When our allies shoulder their fair share of the burden, they will have a fair say in the decisions,'' he said. (New York Times, 03.24.21)
  • Leonid Slutsky, chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee in the State Duma, the lower house of Russia's parliament, called "NATO's statements on a threat and aggression emanating from Russia" as "yet another mantra to justify the alliance's existence." (RFE/RL, 03.23.21, RFE/RL, 03.26.21)
  • Blinken has told Turkey to abandon Russia's S-400 missile defense system, the U.S. State Department said in a statement. A further purchase of a Russian weapons system that has already incurred American sanctions has upset Washington and NATO, and the Biden administration has warned Turkey that under U.S. law it would incur further automatic sanctions should that transaction proceed. That was also a message Blinken repeated March 24 to his Turkish counterpart. Turkey is holding off for now. (New York Times, 03.24.21, RFE/RL, 03.24.21)
  • U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin has reiterated that U.S. allies should steer clear of purchasing Russian military equipment to avoid sanctions after a meeting on March 20 with his Indian counterpart. (RFE/RL, 03.21.21)

Missile defense:

  • Britain’s controversial move to raise the cap on its nuclear warhead stockpile was motivated by the need to maintain a “credible” deterrent to counter Russia’s improved ballistic missile defenses, U.K. Defense Secretary Ben Wallace has said. When challenged on the issue, Wallace said his job in maintaining a credible deterrent was to “reflect and review what the Russians and others have been up to.” He added: “In the past few years we have seen Russia invest strongly in ballistic missile defense . . . They have planned and deployed new capabilities and that means if we are going to remain credible, it has to do the job.” (Financial Times, 03.21.21)
  • Russia's ambassador to Britain said March 21 that diplomatic ties between the two countries were "nearly dead," after a U.K. strategic review this week branded Moscow an "acute direct threat." Andrei Kelin also criticized Britain's decision to bolster its nuclear stockpile, arguing the reversal of decades of policy was a violation of various international agreements. (The Moscow Times, 03.21.21)

Nuclear arms control:

  • No significant developments.


  • No significant developments.

Conflict in Syria:

  • One civilian was killed and two injured March 21 in Russian airstrikes near the M4 highway in the Bab al-Hawa border crossing area between the town of Sarmada in Idlib province on the Syrian side and the Reyhanli district of Hatay province in southern Turkey. Russian jets hit a “rebel training camp,” a gas facility, a cement factory and several towns and cities. A Russian surface-to-surface missile also hit the town of Qah. (Anadolu, 03.22.21, Jerusalem Post, 03.22.21, Reuters, 03.21.21)
    • Ankara has informed Moscow that Syria’s armed forces must stop combat operation in Idlib, the Turkish national defense ministry said. (TASS, 03.21.21)
  • Russia's Southern District Military Court in Rostov-on-Don has convicted Ramzan Akhyadov, a resident of Chechnya, for involvement in the activities of an illegal military formation in Syria. (Interfax, 03.19.21)

Cyber security:

  • Recent hacks that affected thousands of companies should prompt the U.S. to rethink how it responds to cyberattacks, head of U.S. Cyber Command said March 25 before a Senate committee. Gen. Paul Nakasone stopped short of calling for the NSA to be given the authority to surveil domestic networks when questioned directly by Sen. Mike Rounds. (Wall Street Journal, 03.26.21)
  • Hacks of U.S. agencies and companies in recent months have set back efforts to improve the public-private collaboration seen as key to defending against future attacks, the Department of Homeland Security's top cyber official Brandon Wales said. (Wall Street Journal, 03.23.21)
  • Russia’s Security Council approved a draft of "Fundamentals of the State Policy of the Russian Federation in the Field of International Information Security,” according to the Council’s Secretary Nikolai Patrushev. The document will be submitted to Putin for approval and then published, Kremlin’s official website quoted a statement by Patrushev on March 26. The statement criticized unidentified states for seeking to preserve their dominance in the cyberdomain and praised the “digital sovereignty of independent states.” (Russia Matters, 03.26.21)
  • Suspected Russian state-backed hackers with a history of running disinformation campaigns against NATO have targeted dozens of German lawmakers, German media reported March 26. The hackers used spear-phishing e-mails to target the private e-mail accounts of members of the German parliament and regional state assemblies, in the latest suspected Russian-backed effort against lawmakers in the country. (RFE/RL, 03.26.21)
  • Sergei Medvedev of Russia and Marko Leopard of North Macedonia were sentenced to 10 years and five years in U.S. prison, respectively, for their roles in a transnational cybercrime operation that was responsible for the theft of $568 million worldwide, the U.S. Justice Department said March 19. (RFE/RL, 03.20.21)

Elections interference:

  • No significant developments.

Energy exports from CIS:

  • Blinken and Stoltenberg criticized the contentious Nord Stream 2 project. Blinken said it threatened to damage both the EU and Ukraine. “It has the potential to undermine the interests of Ukraine, Poland and a number of close partners and allies.” “President Biden has been very clear, he believes the pipeline is a bad idea, bad for Europe, bad for the United States, ultimately it is in contradiction to the EU's own security goals," Blinken said March 23 as he met with Stoltenberg in Brussels. Blinken also told German counterpart Heiko Maas that companies involved in the project risked U.S. sanctions. At the same time, he emphasized that Germany is among America's most important allies, that the pipeline is ''an irritant in a rock-solid alliance,'' and that Germany has some choices to make. (RFE/RL, 03.23.21, New York Times, 03.24.21, Financial Times, 03.23.21)
  • Russia remained China’s second-largest oil exporter after Saudi Arabia in January-February 2021, the General Administration of Customs of the People’s Republic of China reported March 20. Russia sold 13.93 million tons of oil worth $5.42 billion in two months, according to the report. Supplies decreased by 23 percent in annual terms. (TASS, 03.20.21)

U.S.-Russian economic ties:

  • No significant developments.

U.S.-Russian relations in general:

  • During his first press conference U.S. President Joe Biden compared Chinese President Xi Jinping to Russian President Vladimir Putin, calling them both supporters of autocracy. But he said the United States was not looking for confrontation with China over differences on trade, Beijing’s rollback of democracy in Hong Kong, treatment of minority Uighurs and military buildup. (Reuters, 03.25.21)
    • When speaking on the recent statement made by Biden Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said, "We are aware that the United States deems its democracy to be the only correct kind, and we also know that the United States never stops trying to push what they call democracy on other countries across the globe. This is what is opposed by Moscow and Beijing, and, in this sense, indeed, both Putin and Xi Jinping have completely identical viewpoints." (Interfax, 03.26.21)
  • Moscow said March 22 it regretted that Washington did not respond to Putin's proposal to organize public talks with Biden. "One more opportunity has been passed up to look for a way out of the dead end in Russia-U.S. ties," the Russian Foreign Ministry said in a statement. Peskov said the offer would not be repeated. (AFP, 03.22.21, RFE/RL, 03.19.21)
  • In a news conference from cosmonaut headquarters in Star City, astronaut Mark Vande said he may have to give up his return Soyuz seat in the fall to a Russian space tourist who's interested in filming up there. If that happens, he and possibly one of his two Russian crewmates would have to wait for the next Soyuz ride home—most likely in spring 2022. (The Washington Post, 03.23.21)
  • Both sides in a corporate dispute that led to fraud charges against U.S. private equity executive Michael Calvey have agreed to sell the bank at the heart of the lawsuit, raising his supporters’ hopes that the case against one of Russia’s largest foreign investors could be dropped. Calvey’s company Baring Vostok and rival Finvision said March 25 they would sell their stakes in Vostochny Bank to Sovcombank. (Financial Times 03.26.21)
  • Russians are on average more optimistic than Americans toward the prospect of warmer relations between the countries, though both remain largely pessimistic, a new poll by the independent Levada Center found. If only 10 percent of American respondents said they believe U.S.-Russian ties would improve in the next decade, 19 percent of Russian respondents held that view, according to Levada and its U.S. partner, the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. Forty-three percent of Americans predicted the countries will grow further apart in the next 10 years compared to 29 percent of Russians, the latest survey said. (The Moscow Times, 03.25.21)


II. Russia’s domestic policies

Domestic politics, economy and energy:

  • Russia has confirmed 4,501,859 total cases of coronavirus and 97,017 deaths, according to the national coronavirus information center. Russia on March 26 confirmed 9,167 new coronavirus cases and 405 deaths, compared to 9,221 new coronavirus cases and 393 deaths on March 25. (The Moscow Times, 03.25.21, The Moscow Times, 03.26.21) 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.
  • Putin has been vaccinated against COVID-19 and is feeling well, new agency RIA said March 23 citing the Kremlin, as authorities seek to encourage hesitant Russians to get the shot. (RFE/RL, 03.23.21)
  • A poll has found that just a quarter of Russians started working from home during the pandemic, and that more than half of those have now returned to the office completely. Another 15 percent are continuing in a mixed format, combining working from the office and home. In total, just 8 percent of Russian employees are currently working fully remotely, the survey found. (The Moscow Times, 03.22.21)
  • The State Duma has approved the third and final reading of a bill aligning election laws with recent changes to the constitution that among other things allow for the possibility of Putin to stay in power until 2036. The bill, approved March 24, still requires the approval of parliament’s upper chamber as well as Putin's signature. (RFE/RL, 03.26.21)
  • Retail trade dropped 1.3 percent in February 2021 compared to the same period last year amid a decline in the unemployment rate by 0.1 percentage point to 5.7 percent, while real salaries managed to show a 0.1 percent year on year increase. (bne IntelliNews, 03.22.21)
  • The second VVER-1200 reactor at the Leningrad nuclear power plant in western Russia began commercial operation. Leningrad II-2 is the fourth VVER-1200 in operation in Russia and brings the total number of nuclear power units in the country to 38. (World Nuclear News, 03.22.21)
  • Russia is creating a digital platform to collect satellite and drone data on its vast forests in the Far East with the aim of offering them on the carbon offset market, Bloomberg reported March 23. The Lesvostok.rf system, when it launches later in 2021, will allow the government to lease sections of forest to enterprises, which can then invest in planting new trees or protecting existing ones. (The Moscow Times, 03.23.21)
  • Amid ongoing attempts to impose more control over the Internet, Russian media regulator Roskomnadzor has proposed users of social-media networks and messenger applications hand over passport data and other personal information for verification. (RFE/RL, 03.25.21)
  • There are valuation discounts and risk premiums, and then there is Surgutneftegaz. Russia’s fourth-largest oil producer pumps out more than 10 percent of the country’s crude, has barely any debt and a cash pile of about $50 billion. But investors value it at just $20.5 billion. (Financial Times, 03.24.21)
  • Russia in 2020 saw record high average temperatures and a record drop of summer ice cover on its Arctic maritime route. Russia's average annual temperature last year was 3.22 degrees Celsius higher than the average for 1961-1990 and more than one degree higher than the country's previous record in 2007, Rosgidromet said. (AFP, 03.25.21)
  • Lawyers for jailed opposition politician Alexei Navalny say their client is in great pain and fears for his life, contradicting a statement from Russian prison authorities that said the Kremlin critic was in "satisfactory" condition. The Kremlin says it won't respond to a plea from the wife of Navalny to free her husband amid reports his health has deteriorated sharply over the past month. (RFE/RL, 03.26.21, RFE/RL, 03.26.21)
    • A military court in Moscow has rejected a lawsuit filed by Navalny against the Main Military Investigative Directorate over its refusal to launch an investigation into his poisoning in Siberia with a nerve agent last August. (RFE/RL, 03.22.21)

Defense and aerospace:

  • Overall, defense analyst Janes expects the international defense industry to grow this year, although at its lowest rate—just 0.7 percent—since 2013, with total global spending on defense at nearly $1.8 trillion. Janes expects significant drops in Africa, the Middle East and Russia, with no growth in Asia Pacific, Europe and Latin America. (Wall Street Journal, 03.20.21)
  • A Soyuz rocket blasted off from the Vostochny cosmodrome in Russia's Far East on March 25 carrying 36 U.K. telecommunications and an internet satellite for OneWew, the Roscosmos space agency said. Another Soyuz rocket blasted off from the Baikonur cosmodrome in Kazakhstan on March 22 carrying 38 foreign satellites. (AFP, 03.26.21, RFE/RL, 03.22.21)
  • The Pskov-based 76th airborne assault division will get its third air-assault regiment this year. The Kamyshin-based 56th Air-Assault Brigade will consolidate to a regiment by the end of 2021 and redeploy to Feodosia. There (presumably) it’ll join up with the battalion based there to become the third regiment of Novorossiysk’s 7th DShD. Despite maintaining a multi-division airborne force, Russia only has lift capacity to drop less than a division at a time (Russian defense policy, 03.26.21, The National Interest, 03.26.21)
  • Three crew members on board a supersonic Tupolev Tu-22M3 Backfire bomber have died in an incident at Shaikovka military airfield in the Kaluga region on March 23. “An ejection system malfunctioned during a planned preparation on the ground for a Tu-22M3 flight at an airfield in the Kaluga region,” the Russian Defense Ministry said. Three crew members received fatal injuries due to the “insufficient height to deploy parachutes,” the Defense Ministry said. (Defense Blog, 03.23.21)

Security, law-enforcement and justice:

  • Putin has dismissed one of his staunch supporters, the governor of the Penza region in the Volga Federal District, after he was arrested on suspicion of taking a bribe. Putin signed a decree dismissing Ivan Belozertsev, "due to a loss of trust," on March 23. Russia's Investigative Committee has accused Belozertsev of accepting a bribe worth of 31 million rubles ($420,000). (RFE/RL, 03.24.21)
  • Russian law enforcement officers play a key role in the industrial-scale theft of oil from the country's network of pipelines, an illicit business that robs the public coffers of hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue and wreaks damage on the environment, a new RFE/RL investigation, which focuses on the energy-rich Khanty-Mansi Autonomous District in western Siberia, shows. (RFE/RL, 03.22.21)
  • Russian billionaire and Chelsea Football Club owner Roman Abramovich has launched a defamation lawsuit against author Catherine Belton over claims that he had bought the club at Putin’s orders. (The Moscow Times, 03.23.21)
  • Chechen authorities have detained dozens of relatives of two gay men who were forcibly returned to the southern Russian region to face terrorism charges, a rights group told the independent Dozhd broadcaster March 24. (The Moscow Times, 03.26.21)
  • Austrian authorities have extradited Boris Mazo, a former employee of the Russian Culture Ministry who is suspected in Russia of fraud and embezzlement. (RFE/RL, 03.26.21)


III. Russia’s relations with other countries

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

  • European Council President Charles Michel has told Putin that relations between the European Union and Russia are “at a low point” with disagreements in “many areas.” Michel and Putin spoke by telephone March 22. According to a Kremlin statement, Putin “gave an appraisal of the unsatisfactory state of Russia-EU ties which has emerged due to unconstructive, often confrontational policies of our partners." The Russian leader stressed that Russia was ready to "resume normal depoliticized" ties with the EU if there's a will to do so in Brussels. (RFE/RL, 03.22.21)
  • Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said that Russia has “no relations with the European Union.” He accused European Union leaders of “destroying” relations with Moscow, TASS reported March 23. “There are no relations with the European Union as an organization. The entire infrastructure of these relations has been destroyed by the unilateral decisions of Brussels,” Lavrov was quoted as saying during a joint press conference with his Chinese counterpart Wang Yi. (bne IntelliNews, 03.26.21, The Moscow Times, 03.23.21)
  • The EU imposed sanctions on two Chechen officials accused of involvement in the “torture and repression” of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people in Chechnya and other individuals suspected of being opponents of the Moscow-backed regional leader, Ramzan Kadyrov. Abuzayed Vismuradov and Ayub Katayev were targeted with asset freezes and visa bans. (RFE/RL, 03.22.21)
  • The developers of Russia’s COVID-19 vaccine have accused the EU’s internal market commissioner Thierry Breton of “hubris” and anti-Russian “bias” after he said the bloc had no need to use the vaccine. “We have absolutely no need of Sputnik V,” Breton, who is head of the EU’s vaccine distribution initiative, said. (Financial Times, 03.22.21)
  • France could start using Russia’s Sputnik V coronavirus vaccine in its national vaccination drive as early as June, France’s Secretary of State for European Affairs Clément Beaune said March 23. (The Moscow Times, 03.23.21)
  • France on March 26 accused Russia of using the Sputnik V vaccine as a tool to spread Moscow's influence and message rather than as way to fight the global health crisis. "In terms of how it is managed, it [the Sputnik V vaccine] is more a means of propaganda and aggressive diplomacy than a means of solidarity and health aid," Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said. (The Moscow Times, 03.25.21)
  • Germany has asked the European Commission to purchase doses of Sputnik V for the EU, Politico Europe reported March 24. (The Moscow Times, 03.26.21)
  • Slovakia’s prime minister Igor Matovic said March 21 that he was prepared to stand down to defuse a coalition crisis that erupted after his decision to purchase Sputnik V. Matovic announced this month that Slovakia would purchase 2 million doses of the Russian vaccine, using an emergency approvals process as the shot has not been approved by the European Medicines Agency. (Financial Times, 03.21.21)
  • The backer of Russia's Sputnik V coronavirus vaccine said March 22 it had signed an agreement with an India-based pharmaceuticals giant for the production of up to 200 million doses of the vaccine a year. (AFP, 03.22.21)
  • Norway has announced that it is blocking Rolls-Royce's sale of a Norwegian engine maker to a Russian company over concerns it could allow sensitive technology to end up in Russian hands The issue arose last year after Rolls-Royce announced it was selling Bergen Engines, which makes and services medium-speed gas and diesel engines for marine and power generation customers, to TMH Group, a privately owned company headquartered in Russia that makes locomotives and rail equipment. (RFE/RL, 03.23.21)
  • Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said March 24 Putin is responsible for "terrible things," but wouldn't go so far as Biden in calling the Russian leader a "killer." Canada on March 24 slapped new sanctions against nine Russian officials in response to "gross" rights violations and the silencing of Kremlin critics including Navalny. (The Moscow Times, 03.26.21, AFP, 03.26.21)
  • Telegram has sold more than $1 billion in bonds to international investors, founder Pavel Durov announced March 23—among them Russia’s state-run Direct Investment Fund (RDIF). (The Moscow Times, 03.23.21)
  • Russia said it was seeking to deepen ties with Myanmar’s military junta as its deputy defense minister held talks with the country’s commander-in-chief, Min Aung Hlaing, who led the coup against the democratic government last month. In the most high-profile visit to the country by a foreign power since Aung San Suu Kyi’s government was overthrown, Alexander Fomin on March 26 said Moscow was “committed to a strategy aimed at bolstering relations between the two countries.” (Financial Times, 03.26.21)

China-Russia: Allied or Aligned?

  • Russia’s and China’s relations with the United States, the situation in Afghanistan and Myanmar and the Iran nuclear deal were among the topics of talks between the Russian and Chinese foreign ministers, the Russian foreign ministry said March 22. (TASS, 03.22.21)
    • China and Russia have agreed to automatically extend their Treaty of Good-Neighborliness and Friendly Cooperation for another five years, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said March 23. The treaty was signed by Putin and then-Chinese President Jiang Zemin on July 16, 2001, and was ratified on Feb. 28, 2002. The treaty envisages automatic five-year extensions. (Interfax, 03.23.21)
    • Russia and China believe it is necessary to convene a summit of the permanent members of the U.N. Security Council against the backdrop of the unstable international political situation, Lavrov and Wang said in a joint statement published by the Chinese Foreign Ministry. (Interfax, 03.23.21)
    • At a joint press conference with Wang, Lavrov noted that Moscow and Beijing are not uniting against anyone. “Our relations with China are developing faster than what is left of relations with European countries," he said. The two ministers again rejected what they called outside interference in their domestic affairs and claimed that "there is no single standard for the democratic model." (The Moscow Times, 03.23.21, RFE/RL, 03.23.21)
    • Russia and China will do everything they can to ensure that bilateral relations between them are not threatened by unfriendly countries, this also applies to trade and mutual settlements, Lavrov said March 23 at a joint news conference with Wang. (TASS, 03.23.21)
    • "The Chinese-Russian relations can withstand any test on the international stage, they serve as a stabilizing factor due to the fact that we always support the principles of non-alignment. We do not support confrontation and we do not direct ourselves against third states. We always respect each other’s key interests and concerns," Wang said March 23 on the outcomes of the talks with Lavrov. (TASS, 03.23.21)
    • Lavrov said in an interview with Chinese media outlets that it was essential to mitigate sanctions risks by strengthening technological independence and switching to mutual settlements in national currencies and world currencies that would be an alternative to the U.S. dollar. (TASS, 03.23.21)


  • Ukrainian Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal says his country has accelerated reforms as it continues to move toward its goal of membership in the EU and NATO. Speaking during an official visit to Germany on March 19, Shmyhal said during talks with German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas that "Ukraine's membership in the EU in the medium term is a win-win situation not only for the Ukrainian people, but also for Germany and the EU as a whole."  Shmyhal has also stated that Ukraine aspires to become a member of the EU in the next five to 10 years. "The same concerns NATO," Shmyhal said. (Ukrinform, 03.22.21, RFE/RL, 03.19.21)
  • Ukraine looks forward to building consensus among NATO allies and receiving NATO’s Membership Action Plan in the near future, speaker of the Verkhovna Rada of Ukraine Dmytro Razumkov said at a meeting with NATO Deputy Secretary General Mircea Geoană at NATO headquarters March 22. (Ukrinform, 03.22.21)
  • Ukraine and NATO member countries are planning eight major exercises—that will involve 11,000 foreign troops: Americans, Poles, Romanians and Britons—near Crimea this year, Russian Deputy Defense Minister Andrei Kartapolov said. (Interfax, 03.18.21)
  • The Ukrainian military said that four soldiers were killed in shelling it blamed on Moscow-backed separatists near the village of Shumy north of the separatist's de facto capital Donetsk. The skirmish brings the total number of Ukrainian servicemen killed since fresh fighting broke out again in mid-February to 16. (The Moscow Times/AFP, 03.26.21)
  • Russia’s Kommersant daily managed to get hold of the French-German proposal for a roadmap to implementation of the Minsk-2 accords as well as of Russia’s and Ukraine’s feedback on that roadmap, in which Moscow and Kyiv detailed how they would go about implementing it. (Russia Matters. 03.24.21)
  • Ukraine has placed sanctions on dozens of Russian officials and entities, including businesses and media. President Volodymyr Zelenskiy signed a decree March 23 targeting 26 foreigners and 81 legal entities, blocking their assets and restricting travel or operations in the country. The sanctions, announced after a decision by Ukraine's national security body, also target Russian state-controlled media RT, TASS,, and others. (RFE/RL, 03.24.21)
  • Ukrainian security and defense officials have imposed sanctions against exiled former President Viktor Yanukovych, ex-Prime Minister Mykola Azarov and nearly two dozen other individuals active under the administration that fell when Yanukovych fled to Russia under pressure from street protests in 2014. (RFE/RL, 03.20.21)
  • A Ukrainian court has seized the assets and all the shares of aerospace company Motor Sich, one of the world’s largest producers of engines for helicopters and planes. The move to seize the jet engine manufacturer is likely to irk China and please the United States. (RFE/RL, 03.21.21).
  • The State Bureau of Investigation is conducting a probe at the request of a non-government organization into then-central bank governor Valeriya Gontareva and first deputy governor Kateryna Rozhkova. Investigators are looking into the alleged misappropriation of more than 900 million hryvnia ($32.5 million). Gontareva and Rozhkova denied the accusations. (Bloomberg, 03.21.21)
  • After an unexpected mild 4 percent economic contraction in 2020, the Ukrainian economy is anticipated to grow by between 4.6 percent and 5.1 percent this year, according to various predictions, which could start the virtuous investment-consumption wheel turning. (bne IntelliNews, 03.25.21)
  • Ukraine’s industrial production fell by 4.6 percent in February 2021 compared to the pre-coronavirus February a year earlier, and adjusted for the effect of leap year, the reduction was noticeably smaller, 2 percent, the State Statistics Service said March 23. (bne IntelliNews, 03.23.21)
  • Sixty-two percent of medical professionals in Ukraine refuse to get a COVID-19 vaccine. (Ukraine Business News, 03.22.21)

Russia's other post-Soviet neighbors:

  • Belarusian police arrested over 200 protesters during Belarus’ Freedom Day demonstrations on March 25, the first big protests of the spring season, although the turnout was disappointingly small. (bne IntelliNews, 03.26.21)
  • Lukashenko used a televised appearance on March 19 to say that two former Belarusian government ministers currently under Western sanctions would be "strong candidates" who could succeed him after a possible presidential election. It was unclear how serious Lukashenko was when he held up former Interior Minister Yury Karayev and former Health Minister Uladzimer Karanik as would-be candidates. (RFE/RL, 03.20.21)
  • The U.S. continues to call for the release of all political prisoners in Belarus, site of nearly daily protests since a disputed presidential election last year handed Alexander Lukashenko a sixth term amid claims the vote was rigged. (RFE/RL, 03.26.21)
  • The United Nations Human Rights Council has approved a resolution to create a team to investigate Belarus's violent crackdown on demonstrators protesting against presidential elections last year. (RFE/RL, 03.24.21)
  • Moldova's Socialist-dominated parliament has failed for a second time to approve Igor Grosu, the candidate nominated by pro-Western President Maia Sandu, to serve as prime minister, moving the country closer to snap elections. Under the constitution, the president has the right to ask for the dissolution of parliament and organize snap elections after a second failure to approve a new prime minister within 45 days. (RFE/RL, 03.26.21)
  • Georgian Deputy Interior Minister Kakhaber Sabanadze has resigned amid media reports he ordered the intentional disruption of a gathering of opposition groups and used illegal surveillance to keep track of some politicians. (RFE/RL, 03.23.21)
  • Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan has said his parliamentary bloc plans to pass amendments that would switch the electoral system to a fully proportional one before snap parliamentary elections scheduled for June. (RFE/RL, 03.26.21)
  • Pashinyan has come under criticism for what the opposition says are lies and contradictory statements about why the Armenian military did not deploy fighter jets purchased from Russia during last year’s war with Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh. Pashinyan told parliament on March 24 that he saw no contradiction between his comments about why Armenia did not purchase missiles for its Russian Su-30SM fighter jets and his prewar statement on social media about the aircraft “successfully testing missiles.” (RFE/RL, 03.26.21)
  • Armenian lawmakers have voted to lift martial law, imposed at the beginning of a war with Azerbaijan over the breakaway region of Nagorno-Karabakh, as the country prepares for early parliamentary elections in June. (RFE/RL, 03.24.21)
  • An Istanbul court has handed life sentences to two former Turkish police commanders and two top ex-security officers over the killing of Turkish-Armenian journalist Hrant Dink 14 years ago. Dink had been an arduous proponent of reconciliation between Armenians and Turks and was repeatedly prosecuted for insulting "Turkishness.” (RFE/RL, 03.26.21)
  • Reporters Without Borders is calling on French authorities to protect exiled Azerbaijani video blogger Mahammad Mirzali, who was stabbed more than 10 times in an attack in France 10 days ago and later received a threatening text message on his phone. (RFE/RL, 03.26.21)
  • Kyrgyzstan says long-standing border issues with Uzbekistan have been "100 percent fully resolved." Kamchybek Tashiev, the head of Kyrgyzstan's State Committee for National Security, told RFE/RL on March 26 that talks with a group of Uzbek officials led by Prime Minister Abdulla Aripov had ended with the signing of a protocol on the final delimitation and demarcation of the Kyrgyz-Uzbek border. (RFE/RL, 03.26.21)


IV. Quoteworthy

  • No significant developments.