Russia in Review, May 3-10, 2019
This Week's Highlights
- Secretary of State Mike Pompeo will meet with both Russian President Vladimir Putin and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on a trip to Russia early next week, according to a State Department statement cited by Politico. The Russian government, meanwhile, is preparing to consider U.S. proposals for a new pact that would replace the INF Treaty, the Russian Foreign Ministry was quoted by TASS as saying.
- China has dismissed suggestions that it would talk with the U.S. and Russia about a new accord limiting nuclear arms, saying it would not take part in any trilateral nuclear disarmament negotiations, Reuters reports.
- The Kremlin has said Putin sees "no alternative" to the Iran nuclear deal, according to The Washington Post. Russia’s Rosatom has claimed its project to build nuclear power units at Iran’s Bushehr site has not been affected by U.S. sanctions against Iran, World Nuclear News reports.
- Fifty-five percent of Russian respondents say their country should end its military campaign in Syria, up from 49 percent in August 2017, according to a recent Levada poll reported by The Moscow Times. Meanwhile, multiple news outlets said Syrian and Russian jets had intensified air raids on Idlib, barrel bombing areas deep inside the de-escalation zone.
- President Donald Trump spoke approvingly of Russian actions in Venezuela following a lengthy phone call with Russian President Vladimir Putin last week; he has also said in recent days that John Bolton wants to get him "into a war," The Washington Post reports.
- Rudolph Giuliani said he plans to travel to Kiev and wants to meet with the nation’s president-elect to urge him to pursue inquiries on the origin of the Mueller investigation and on the involvement of former Vice President Joseph Biden’s son in a gas company owned by a Ukrainian oligarch, the New York Times reports.
- Russia’s Finance Ministry sold over $1 billion worth of ruble-denominated bonds on May 8 as part of a plan to raise 600 billion rubles in domestic debt this quarter, according to the Financial Times. That comes after Moscow sold a record 400 billion rubles in April—four times its monthly average. The newspaper says analysts see the borrowing boom as preemptive stockpiling amid the lingering threat of further punitive measures from Washington.
- President Putin has replaced Admiral Vladimir Korolyov as commander of the Russian Navy. A Russian defense expert told RBC this was because Korolyov had failed to ensure smooth cooperation between the Navy and Russia’s ship-building industry.
I. U.S. and Russian priorities for the bilateral agenda
Nuclear security and safety:
- Final system-wide trials began of the new, dry, interim used-fuel storage facility at the site of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in Ukraine. The facility is expected to be handed over to the state-owned power plant in the coming months. (World Nuclear News, 05.07.19)
North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs:
- The three new missiles North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has tested over the past week bear a strong resemblance to the Russian-designed Iskander, a short-range, nuclear-capable ballistic missile that has been in the Russian arsenal for more than a decade, according to one military analyst. (AP, 05.10.19)
Iran’s nuclear program and related issues:
- Iran decided May 8 to halt its compliance with elements of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or Iran nuclear deal. In announcing the partial break with the nuclear accord, President Hassan Rouhani set a 60-day deadline to get relief from punishing sanctions, promising to resume enriching uranium to a higher level than now allowed under the treaty if his demand goes unmet. Underscoring the significance of Iran's move, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif traveled to Moscow and delivered a personal letter from Rouhani to Russian President Vladimir Putin. Rouhani praised Moscow as a friend of Iran but said other participants in the deal have "failed to fulfill their obligations." Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Putin saw "no alternative" to the Iran nuclear deal and that the Trump administration's "poorly conceived, reckless decisions" have led Iran to curtail its commitments. (The Washington Post, 05.07.19)
- Rosatom's project to build nuclear power units at Iran’s Bushehr site is unaffected by current tensions surrounding U.S. sanctions against Iran, its director general, Alexei Likhachyov, has said. (World Nuclear News, 05.09.19)
New Cold War/saber rattling:
- No significant developments.
Military issues, including NATO-Russia relations:
- During a joint press conference with Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu in Ankara NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg expressed concern about the potential consequences of Turkey's plans to purchase Russian air-defense missile systems. (RFE/RL, 05.07.19)
- No significant developments.
Nuclear arms control:
- The Russian government is preparing to consider U.S. proposals for a new pact to replace the INF Treaty, the Russian Foreign Ministry was quoted by TASS as saying ahead of Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s May 13-14 visit to Russia. (Russia Matters, 05.08.19)
- China on May 6 dismissed a suggestion that it would talk with the United States and Russia about a new accord limiting nuclear arms, saying it would not take part in any trilateral nuclear disarmament negotiations. (Reuters, 05.06.19)
- No significant developments.
Conflict in Syria:
- Fifty-five percent of Russian respondents say their country should end its military campaign in Syria, up from 49 percent in August 2017, according to an April 18-23 poll published by the Levada Center on May 6. Those saying they pay close attention to or “know a little bit” about the latest events in Syria account for the lowest figures since Russia began the air campaign there—13 percent and 48 percent, respectively. (The Moscow Times, 05.06.19)
- Aircraft of the Russian Aerospace Forces have delivered strikes against militants who shelled the Hmeimim airbase, the Russian Center for Reconciliation of Opposing Sides in Syria has said. Earlier, on May 6, Russian air defense systems successfully repelled two strikes from multiple launch rocket systems targeting the airbase from the Idlib de-escalation area. The same day Syrian army troops entered at least one village inside the de-escalation zone while Syrian and Russian jets intensified air raids on Idlib, barrel bombing areas deep inside the zone. The aerial campaign has killed about 100 civilians and put at least 10 hospitals out of service. (Interfax, 05.07.19, Financial Times, 05.06.19, The Washington Post, 05.06.19)
- U.S. officials are pushing ahead with joint efforts with allied nations to counter Russia's interference in democratic elections, in hopes of better observing and countering Moscow's newest cyberweapons. American officials deployed last year to Ukraine, Macedonia and Montenegro, and U.S. Cyber Command officials said that their missions included defending elections and uncovering information about Russia's newest abilities. Cyber Command will continue some of those partnerships and expand its work to other countries under attack from Russia. (New York Times, 05.07.19)
- President Trump said May 9 that he would leave it up to Attorney General William Barr to decide whether Robert Mueller, the special counsel, may testify before Congress on the Russia investigation. His comments were a seeming reversal, since Trump wrote over the weekend on Twitter that Mueller should not be allowed to appear before Congress. Barr has told lawmakers that he has no objection to letting Mueller talk to them. (Boston Globe, 05.09.19)
- The House Judiciary Committee voted May 8 to hold Attorney General William Barr in contempt of Congress, escalating the looming constitutional collision over the Mueller report between congressional Democrats and the Trump administration. Before the vote, President Donald Trump asserted executive privilege over special counsel Robert Mueller's report and its underlying evidence, following through on a threat the Justice Department made the night before if the committee moved forward with the contempt vote. The matter now moves to the full House for a vote. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said May 9 that the United States was in a “constitutional crisis.” (CNN, 05.08.19, New York Times, 05.09.19)
- In a speech on May 7, Mitch McConnell, the top Republican in the Senate, said Democrats "told everyone there had been a conspiracy between Russia and the Trump campaign, yet on this special question the special counsel's finding is case closed." Nancy Pelosi, the Democratic leader of the House of Representatives, said Congress "would be delinquent" if it did not continue investigating. "The case is not closed," she said. (RFE/RL, 05.07.19)
- The Senate Intelligence Committee has subpoenaed Donald Trump Jr., the president's eldest son, who met with a Russian lawyer in June 2016 after being promised political dirt about Hillary Clinton, according to people familiar with the committee's decision. (New York Times, 05.09.19)
- The Justice Department's internal watchdog, close to concluding its inquiry into steps the FBI took in its probe of Trump campaign associates and Russia beginning in 2016, is homing in on whether the agency continued surveillance of Carter Page despite questions about a key source's credibility, according to people familiar with the matter. The department's inspector general has been asking witnesses about the FBI’s treatment of information in a dossier provided by Christopher Steele. (Wall Street Journal, 05.07.19)
- Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Kathleen Kavalec's written account of her Oct. 11, 2016, meeting with Christopher Steele shows the Hillary Clinton campaign-funded British intelligence operative admitted that his research was political and facing an Election Day deadline. Steele's client "is keen to see this information come to light prior to November 8," the date of the 2016 election, Kavalec wrote in a typed summary of her meeting with Steele and Tatyana Duran, a colleague from Steele's Orbis Security firm. (The Hill, 05.07.19)
- FBI Director Christopher Wray said May 7 he would not call the investigation of Trump campaign advisers in 2016 “spying”—distancing himself from language used by President Trump and Attorney General William Barr. (The Washington Post, 05.07.19)
- Russian disinformation operations to exploit racial tensions during the 2016 presidential election in the United States found firm ground in a country where legislators have long sought to suppress the black vote, according to a report by the National Urban League released May 6. (New York Times, 05.06.19)
- More than 400 former U.S. prosecutors and Justice Department political appointees have signed a letter arguing that President Donald Trump would be charged with obstruction of justice if he weren't president. (RFE/RL, 05.06.19)
- Former Australian diplomat Alexander Downer, in an extensive interview, spoke out on his mysterious role in triggering the launch of the Trump-Russia probe. (Fox News, 05.10.19)
- Former FBI Director James Comey said May 9 that it is possible the Russians have leverage over President Donald Trump. (CNN, 05.09.19)
- Russia's energy minister said May 7 that oil is expected to resume flowing through a key pipeline to Europe by the middle of May, after contaminated supplies disrupted exports. Alexander Novak also said that four people had been arrested as part of an investigation into the contaminated oil, which caused major disruptions and tarnished Russia's reputation as a reliable supplier. (RFE/RL, 05.07.19)
Bilateral economic ties:
- Morgan Stanley is planning to send a formal notice to the Russian central bank that it will close down its banking operations in the country in the first quarter of 2020, its Russian unit said in its annual report. (Reuters, 05.07.19)
- See also "China" section below.
Other bilateral issues:
- Pompeo will meet with both Russian President Vladimir Putin and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov to discuss the “full range of bilateral and multilateral challenges," the State Department said May 10. The secretary will travel first to Moscow, where he will meet with U.S. Embassy staff, and then to Sochi, where he will meet with Putin and Lavrov. (Politico, 05.10.19)
- Pompeo opposed a May 9 statement issued by the U.S. State Department criticizing “Russia’s brazen attempt to undermine” Montenegro’s sovereignty, according to current and former U.S. officials who suggested it was because he wanted to soften combative tones with Moscow ahead of his forthcoming visit. (Foreign Policy, 05.10.19)
- Donald Trump spoke approvingly of Russian actions in Venezuela following a lengthy phone call with Russian President Vladimir Putin on May 3, saying that Putin "is not looking at all to get involved in Venezuela other than he'd like to see something positive happen for Venezuela. And I feel the same way. We want to get some humanitarian aid." His comments stood in contrast to earlier statements from Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and national security adviser John Bolton, who accused Russia of propping up President Nicolás Maduro with money and military equipment. Trump is questioning his administration's aggressive strategy in Venezuela following the failure of a U.S.-backed effort to oust Maduro, complaining he was misled about how easy it would be to replace the socialist strongman. Trump has said in recent days that Bolton wants to get him "into a war." (The Washington Post, 05.08.19)
- U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has pressed for Russia to "get out" of Venezuela, while his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, called on Washington to "abandon its irresponsible plans" in the Latin American country. (RFE/RL, 05.06.19)
- The U.S. has sparked fury and bewilderment after it blocked a joint declaration by Arctic Council states that made reference to climate change. There was widespread shock at the council at the tone of the speech by Mike Pompeo, the U.S. secretary of state, on May 6. Pompeo accused Russia of “aggressive” behavior in the Arctic and questioned China’s claims to be a near-Arctic state. The United States is beefing up its presence in the Arctic to keep Russia's and China's "aggressive" behavior in check in the resource-rich region, Pompeo has said. (FT, 05.07.19, RFE/RL, 05.07.19)
- Paul Whelan, the former U.S. Marine held in Moscow on suspicion of espionage, believes his arrest may be President Vladimir Putin’s way of retaliating against the United States for the sanctions it has imposed on Russia, according to letters sent to his family via his legal team in Moscow. "Russia is denying him his basic human rights and has been dragging its feet every step of the way," the chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Rep. Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.), said of Whelan (Foreign Policy, 05.07.19, The Washington Post, 05.05.19)
- Whelan entered Russia on a business visa supported by his employer, BorgWarner Inc., but a company spokeswoman said he “was not in Russia on company business.” BorgWarner has no facilities in Russia, but has supplied Kamaz, Russia's largest truck-maker, with turbochargers, fan drives and high-performance fans, according to U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission documents. Its total sales to Kamaz in 2013-2015 through non-U.S. subsidiaries was $12.1 million. In 2016 the SEC wrote BorgWarner asking for details of its dealings with Kamaz, which was reported to have delivered trucks to Syria and Sudan, both “designated by the State Department as state sponsors of terrorism and … subject to U.S. economic sanctions.” Kamaz director Sergei Kogogin was a co-chair of Vladimir Putin’s 2018 re-election campaign; Kamaz’s largest shareholder, Rostec, and its director general, Sergei Chemezov, are under U.S. sanctions. (Detroit Free Press, 05.10.19)
- Maria Butina, who pleaded guilty to failing to register as an agent for the Russian government while in the United States and was sentenced to 18 months in U.S. prison, says she believed her notes and analysis would be "valuable" for Russian officials. Butina admitted in an NPR interview that she knew that the information she was gathering was being passed on to Russia's Foreign Ministry and said that she was honored to help. Newly obtained documents are shedding more light on an outreach campaign to the Treasury Department and Federal Reserve by Butina and the Russian central banker who was her main official contact, Alexander Torshin. (RFE/RL, 05.10.19, NPR, 05.10.19)
- In February a bipartisan group of U.S. senators introduced a bill—the Defending American Security from Kremlin Aggression Act of 2019, or DASKA—that would prevent U.S. investors from buying or dealing in Russian sovereign debt. Chris Weafer, a partner at Moscow-based consultancy Macro Advisory, said measures from the U.S. were likely to be adopted by EU investors too, in a coordinated push to punish Moscow for its aggression in the Sea of Azov. (Financial Times, 05.08.19)
- Michael Cohen, President Trump’s former lawyer who pleaded guilty to tax, bank and campaign finance crimes, reported to prison May 6 after spending months trying to delay his punishment by dangling the prospect of new incriminating information against others. (The Washington Post, 05.06.19)
II. Russia’s domestic news
Politics, economy and energy:
- Russian news reports say that investigators are looking at whether pilot error is to blame for the crash of a Sukhoi Superjet 100 at a Moscow airport that killed 41 people. The Kommersant newspaper on May 7 quoted unnamed sources as saying the pilots flew into a thunderstorm and then landed with a full tank rather than circling to use up fuel. Officials said the jet burst into flames on the runway during the May 5 landing. Among those killed in the cash was an American citizen. Russian regional carrier Yamal Airlines said May 6 it was cancelling its planned purchase of 10 Sukhoi Superjet 100s. (RFE/RL, 05.07.19, Reuters, 05.06.19)
- Russia’s Finance Ministry sold 73 billion rubles’ ($1.1 billion) worth of ruble-denominated bonds on May 8 as part of a plan to raise 600 billion rubles in domestic debt this quarter. That comes after Moscow sold a record 400 billion rubles in April—four times its monthly average. Analysts see the borrowing boom as a pre-emptive stockpiling as the threat of further punitive measures from Washington lingers. (Financial Times, 05.08.19)
- Russia's Federal Anti-Monopoly Service said that before the 1998 crisis the state's share of the economy was estimated at about 25 percent, rising to 40-45 percent by 2008 and exceeding 50 percent by 2013. The FAS estimates that in 2017-2018 the state’s share of the economy exceeded 60-70 percent of GDP. (bne IntelliNews, 05.06.19)
- Only 3 percent of Russians believe that government officials submit trustworthy income declarations every year, according to an independent Levada Center survey. (The Moscow Times, 05.07.19)
- Police in the Russian republic of Chechnya are carrying out a new round of detentions and beatings of suspected sexual minorities two years after reported mass anti-gay purges, Human Rights Watch said on Wednesday. (The Moscow Times, 05.08.19)
Defense and aerospace:
- Admiral Nikolai Evmenov has replaced Admiral Vladimir Korolyov as commander of the Russian Navy. Under the same presidential decree, Vice Admiral Igor Osipov was appointed commander of the Black Sea Fleet and Admiral Alexander Moiseyev was appointed commander of the Northern Fleet. Russian defense expert Ilya Kramnik told RBC that Korolyov had been relieved of his duties because he failed to ensure smooth cooperation between the Navy and Russia’s ship-building industry. (IndraStra Global, 05.10.19, Russia Matters, 05.09.19)
- President Vladimir Putin watched intercontinental nuclear missile launchers roll across Red Square on May 9 as Russia put on its annual show of military might to mark the Soviet Union's World War II victory over the Nazis. (Reuters, 05.09.19)
Security, law-enforcement and justice:
- Almost 7,500 people were found guilty on charges of bribery last year, more than half of them for giving or taking less than $150, according to data released by the Russian Supreme Court’s justice department. (The Moscow Times, 05.06.19)
- A Danish newspaper reported that prosecutors have charged former chief executive of Danske Bank Thomas Borgen for his involvement in one of the world’s biggest money-laundering scandals, which involved suspicious transactions—up to one-third of them involving Russian accounts—totaling some 200 billion euros. (RFE/RL, 05.07.19)
- A Moscow court has sentenced two prominent Russian soccer players to prison terms for an assault on a government official last year. The Presnensky District Court sentenced Alexander Kokorin to 18 months in prison, while Pavel Mamayev was ordered to serve 17 months. (RFE/RL, 05.08.19)
III. Foreign affairs, trade and investment
Russia’s general foreign policy and relations with “far abroad” countries:
- Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and his Japanese counterpart, Taro Kono, said after a meeting in Moscow that much effort is still needed before their countries can resolve a World War II-era territorial dispute that stands in the way of a peace agreement. Ahead of the May 10 talks, Lavrov said "extremely significant" differences remained between Moscow and Tokyo's positions. (RFE/RL, 05.10.19)
- A court in Montenegro on May 9 found 14 people, including two Russians suspected of being spies, guilty of plotting a coup in 2016 to prevent the tiny Balkan country from joining NATO. The Russians, who were tried in absentia and are believed to be in Russia, ''knowingly tried to terrorize Montenegrins, attack others, threaten and hurt basic constitutional and social structures,'' the judge said. (New York Times, 05.09.19)
- Russia said it would allow Polish investigators to examine the wreckage of a Polish plane that crashed in 2010, an incident that killed Poland’s then-President Lech Kaczynski and 95 other people. (RFE/RL, 05.08.19)
- Sweden's Foreign Ministry says two of its diplomats have been expelled from Russia following a move by Stockholm to deny visas to two of Moscow’s envoys. (RFE/RL, 05.08.19)
- The tame beluga whale that appeared in Norwegian waters may have previously served as a child therapy animal in Russia, according to Fiskeribladet. There had been media speculation that the whale was a Russian Navy spy. (Deutsche Welle, 05.08.19)
- Russia set up the Free Port of Vladivostok, a special economic zone with tax and customs privileges that apply across five regions along Russia’s eastern coastline, in 2015. Just 3 percent of the FPV’s projects involve Chinese capital, while only 2 percent of China’s $140 million of foreign direct investment in Russia in 2017 landed in the country’s Far East. (Financial Times, 05.05.19)
- Based on the Russian Central Bank’s newly released annual report, in 2018 it halved the portion of reserves held in U.S. dollars from 45.8 percent to 22.7 percent, while significantly increasing the proportions of yuan and euros—from 2.8 percent to 14.8 percent and from 21.7 percent to 31.7 percent, respectively, according to The Bell. (Russia Matters, 05.09.19)
- Ukrainian positions in Donbas were shelled 13 times on May 7, with one Ukrainian serviceman killed and two wounded, the press center for the Joint Forces Operation said. A total of 2,973 Ukrainian soldiers have died during the armed conflict in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions, outgoing Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko has said. (Interfax, 05.06.19, Interfax, 05.07.19)
- Ukraine has called upon the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea to order the immediate release of 24 Ukrainian sailors and three navy ships that were seized by Russia in the Kerch Strait in November 2018. (RFE/RL, 05.10.19)
- Two Ukrainian fishermen detained last year by Russian border guards after their boat broke down off the coast of the Crimea Peninsula have been released. (RFE/RL, 05.07.19)
- The Trump administration has recalled the U.S. ambassador to Ukraine abruptly and ahead of her scheduled departure, after she became a target of political attacks by conservative media outlets and Donald Trump Jr. Democrats see Marie Yovanovitch’s early departure under pressure as the unfair targeting of a career Foreign Service officer by the Trump team. There are currently no nominations for a replacement. (The Washington Post, 05.07.19)
- Volodymyr Zelenskiy has sent emissaries to Brussels to try to bolster his credibility and convince the EU that he will push through anti-corruption and judicial reforms A delegation of advisers led by Oleksandr Danylyuk, a former finance minister under outgoing President Petro Poroshenko, has held talks with European diplomats in the run-up to Zelenskiy’s inauguration this month. (Financial Times, 05.05.19)
- Rudolph Giuliani said he plans to travel to Kiev in the coming days and wants to meet with Ukraine’s president-elect to urge him to pursue inquiries that allies of the White House contend could yield new information about two matters of intense interest to President Donald Trump. One is the origin of the special counsel’s investigation into Russia’s interference in the 2016 election. The other is the involvement of former Vice President Joseph Biden’s son in a gas company owned by a Ukrainian oligarch. (New York Times, 05.09.19)
- The D.C. Court of Appeals on May 9 disbarred Paul Manafort, President Trump's former campaign chairman, because Manafort has been convicted of obstruction of justice and conspiracy. (The Washington Post, 05.09.19)
- Those who work with refugees in the U.S. have said the greatest number now are coming from Congo, Myanmar, Eritrea and Ukraine. (The Washington Post, 05.07.19)
- Among people under 30, Ukraine’s President-elect Volodymyr Zelenskiy won 80 percent of the vote, according to analysis of an exit poll presented May 7. He enjoyed lower support from other age groups: 73.5 percent among voters aged 30-39 and 73 percent and 72 percent among people aged 40-49 and 50-59, respectively. Among the 60+ category, the president-elect won 69.5 percent of the vote. (Interfax, 05.07.19)
- Kremlin aide Sergei Glazyev has said that a passage on an obscure nationalist website in which he entertained the possibility that Ukraine’s new president could populate the country’s war-torn southeastern region with Jews has been misinterpreted. The Kremlin distanced itself from his comments, with its spokesman saying the piece represented Glazyev’s “personal opinion.”(The Moscow Times, 05.08.19)
- Ukrainian authorities said a reporter has been hospitalized in a coma after a brutal attack, and the assault is now being investigated as attempted murder. Police in the city of Cherkasy, about 200 kilometers south of Kiev, said unidentified men attacked Vadym Komarov on May 4. (RFE/RL, 05.06.19)
Russia’s other post-Soviet neighbors:
- Kazakhstan’s interim president Qasym-Zhomart Toqaev says 231 Kazakh citizens have been repatriated during the past week from Syria, where they were believed to have joined the Islamic State or were children of IS fighters. (RFE/RL, 05.10.19)
- Two Saudi sisters who fled to Georgia saying they feared being killed if they returned home said they are moving to another country. (RFE/RL, 05.07.19)
- ''It's pretty much brought all costs and no benefits in terms of U.S. interests,'' said Dalia Dassa Kaye, the director of the Center for Middle East Public Policy at RAND Corporation, of Trump’s Iran policy. ''We not only disrupted an international arms agreement that Iran was complying with, we're also getting into a rift with our European allies. And we're moving Iran closer to Russia.'' (New York Times, 05.08.19)