Russia in Review, May 8-15, 2020
This Week’s Highlights
- “We still have not received any signals from Washington that could indicate a willingness to extend New START after it expires,” Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Ryabkov said, Bloomberg reports. Russia is willing to negotiate a new arms control accord, but this will take time, which extending New START would provide, said Ryabkov. Ryabkov’s comments came after Marshall Billingslea, the Trump administration’s new presidential envoy for arms control, said that before Moscow begins to think about any kind of extension, Russia must “bring the Chinese to the negotiating table” as well, according to The Washington Times.
- The U.S. special representative for Syria, James Jeffrey, has urged continued American deployment to the war-torn country in order to keep pressure on U.S. enemies and make the conflict a "quagmire" for Russia, Newsweek reports.
- German Chancellor Angela Merkel has said there is “hard evidence” that Russian forces were behind a massive hack of the German Bundestag in 2015 that also targeted her own emails, describing the cyber-assault as “outrageous,” the Financial Times reports. She said it “pained” her that Moscow was carrying out such operations “while I’m striving every day for a better relationship with Russia.” Spiegel reported that alleged GRU officer Dmitry Badin targeted two of Merkel’s email accounts, but Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has rejected the allegations, according to AFP.
- Russian cybersecurity magnate and CEO of the Moscow-based cybersecurity Kaspersky Lab says cybercrimes have risen during world-wide coronavirus lockdowns, adding that the majority of cybercriminals are Russian-speakers, RFE/RL reports.
- The New York Times said it stands by its reporting on Russia’s low coronavirus death figures after Russia’s Foreign Ministry demanded that the New York Times and Financial Times retract their reports on the outbreak in Russia. The New York Times quoted a Moscow demographer as saying that seventy percent of coronavirus-related deaths have not been reported in Moscow, while the Financial Times claimed that Russia’s national death toll from coronavirus could be 70 percent higher than the government’s official data shows. Meanwhile, Moscow city health officials said that more than 60 percent of deaths among Moscow’s coronavirus patients are not being included toward the city’s official virus death toll, according to The Moscow Times.
- U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo says the first shipment of U.S. crude oil to Belarus will depart this week, RFE/RL reports. A spokesman for the Belarusian state petrochemicals concern Belneftekhim told reporters the tanker will leave Beaumont, Texas, on May 17 and is expected to reach the port of Klaipeda in Lithuania in early June.
I. U.S. and Russian priorities for the bilateral agenda
- By 2030, the Russian government will raise seven pieces of radioactive debris—including two nuclear submarines—from the bottom of Arctic oceans, documents received by Bellona confirm. Six of the most dangerous items the Soviet Union discarded in polar waters contain more than 90 percent of the radioactivity to be found on the Arctic seabed. Of particular importance, the documents say, are the K-159 and K-27 nuclear submarines, the nuclear reactors of which were still full of nuclear fuel when they went down. (Bellona, 05.12.20)
North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs:
- Russia has sent 25,000 tons of wheat in humanitarian aid to North Korea after last year’s drought hit its rice production, the Russian embassy to North Korea said. (Reuters, 05.14.20)
Iran and its nuclear program:
- Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov has slammed the U.S. attempt to reinstate anti-Iranian international sanctions through mechanisms established under U.N. Security Council Resolution 2231. Russia’s ambassador to the U.N., Vassily Nebenzia, said Moscow will oppose any attempts by the U.S. to extend the arms embargo on Iran past its expiration in October. The U.S. has raised with the European parties to the deal the possibility of restoring sanctions if it is unable to get the 15-member Security Council, where Russia has veto power, to stop the expiration of the arms embargo. (Reuters, 05.12.20, RFE/RL, 05.13.20, Interfax, 05.14.20)
New Cold War/saber rattling:
- The International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons said in a report that nine nuclear-armed nations spent an estimated $72.9 billion on their 13,000-plus atomic weapons in 2019. At $35.4 billion in spending, the U.S. accounts for nearly half the global total. SIPRI estimated Russian nuclear spending at $65.103 billion in 2019. (Countercurrents, 05.14.20)
- On NATO's eastern flank, the alliance and Russia are both looking for ways to flex their muscles and show they are ready for action while also boosting vigilance against a new, invisible foe—the coronavirus pandemic. NATO has proceeded with several smaller drills near its border with Russia where it practiced repelling an invader. Russia has held exercises of its own. It sent warships and military planes toward NATO territories. (Wall Street Journal, 05.14.20)
- The Czech government has confirmed that Russia's embassy has requested Czech police protection for a Russian diplomat accused in the Czech media of bringing highly toxic ricin to Prague in an alleged plot to poison three senior municipal officials. Czech Foreign Minister Tomas Petricek forwarded the Russian Embassy's request to the police on May 12. The request says Andrei Konchakov has been receiving anonymous threats since he was named on May 10 in the Czech media as part of an alleged triple assassination plot by Russia targeting the Prague officials. Konchakov rejected the allegations. (RFE/RL, 05.13.20, RFE/RL, 05.10.20)
- No significant developments.
- No significant developments.
Nuclear arms control:
- “We still have not received any signals from Washington that could indicate a willingness to extend New START after it expires,” Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said on May 14. Russia is willing to negotiate a new arms control accord, but this will take time, which extending New START would provide, he said. The U.S. is unlikely to extend New START with Russia by next year’s deadline unless China is also part of the deal, the Trump administration’s new presidential envoy for arms control said. Marshall Billingslea said that before Moscow begins to think about any kind of extension, Russia must “bring the Chinese to the negotiating table” as well. (The Washington Times, 05.07.20, Bloomberg, 05.14.20)
- No significant developments.
Conflict in Syria:
- Amnesty International says it has documented 18 attacks in northwest Syria carried out by Syrian government and Russian forces over the past year that amounted to war crimes. The rights group said in a report published May 10 that the attacks were on medical facilities and schools, and were carried out by either the Syrian government or its Russian ally between May 2019 and February 2020 in Idlib and areas adjoining the rebel stronghold. (RFE/RL, 05.11.20)
- The U.S. special representative for Syria has urged continued American deployment to the war torn country in order to keep pressure on U.S. enemies and make the conflict a "quagmire" for Russia. Special Representative James Jeffrey said that U.S. President Donald Trump's "maximum pressure" approach toward Syria was paying dividends, and rejected concerns that the American deployment there could turn into a drawn out and costly project akin to Afghanistan or Vietnam. (Newsweek, 05.13.20)
- A plane loaded with Iranian cargo was permitted to land at a Russian airbase in Syria on May 13 for the second time in two weeks to avoid Israeli airstrikes, according to Arab media reports. (TV7, 05.13.20)
- Russian President Vladimir Putin and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu have discussed the developments in Syria in a phone call, the Kremlin press service said. Putin and Netanyahu also agreed on their countries’ cooperation in developing a COVID-19 vaccine. (TASS, 05.08.11)
- Russia and China on May 12 boycotted what Moscow called an "unacceptable" closed-door videoconference with the U.N. Security Council on chemical weapons in Syria. (France24, 05.13.20)
- German Chancellor Angela Merkel has said there is “hard evidence” that Russian forces were behind a massive hack of the German Bundestag in 2015 that also targeted her own emails, describing the cyber-assault as “outrageous.” Speaking on May 13, Merkel said it “pained” her that Moscow was carrying out such operations “while I’m striving every day for a better relationship with Russia.” Germany’s Spiegel magazine reported that Dmitry Badin is believed to be part of the GRU’s APT28 hacker group and that he targeted two of Merkel’s email accounts, which contained the complete email traffic from her Bundestag office from 2012 until 2015. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on May 15 rejected the allegations. "Five years have passed. Not a single concrete fact has been provided," Lavrov said. (Financial Times, 05.14.20, AFP, 05.15.20)
- Russian cybersecurity magnate and CEO of Moscow-based cybersecurity Kaspersky Lab says cybercrimes have risen during coronavirus lockdowns across the world, adding that the majority of cybercriminals are Russian-speakers. Yevgeny Kaspersky said that the quarantines "have forced cybercriminals to hunt for prey with greater frenzy." (RFE/RL, 05.14.20)
- Russian entrepreneur Pavel Durov dropped plans to launch Telegram's TON blockchain project May 12, attacking the U.S. justice system for killing off the initiative. (The Moscow Times,05.12.20)
- No significant developments.
Energy exports from CIS:
- Oil prices rose May 15, heading for a weekly gain with global fuel demand starting to rise as the world reopens for business. Most actively traded U.S. crude futures for July delivery rose 2.5 percent to $28.58 a barrel. Prices have risen from a 21-year low of $11.57 hit last month with oversupply fears easing. Front-month U.S. crude futures for delivery next month advanced 3.6 percent to $28.54 a barrel. Meanwhile, May production is expected to fall by 12 million barrels a day, following supply reductions from OPEC and Russia, the IEA said. (Financial Times, 05.14.20, Wall Street Journal, 05.15.20)
- Saudi Energy Minister Prince Abdulaziz bin Salman and his Russian counterpart Alexander Novak said in a joint statement this week that they are "pleased with the recent signs of improvements in economic and market indicators, especially the growth in oil demand and the ease in concerns about storage limits." Saudi Arabia will cut its oil production by a further 1 million barrels a day next month, as the kingdom seeks to provide further support to crude prices battered by the effects of the pandemic. (Wall Street Journal, 05.14.20, Financial Times, 05.11.20)
U.S.-Russian economic ties:
- No significant developments.
U.S.-Russian relations in general:
- Judge Emmet Sullivan of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia overseeing the criminal case of Trump's former national security adviser Michael Flynn opened the door late May 12 for legal experts and other outside parties to oppose the Justice Department's motion to drop the case, suggesting he has at least some skepticism about the government's argument that Flynn should never have been charged. (New York Times, 05.13.20)
- Trump's top intelligence adviser Richard Grenell has given the Justice Department the names of Obama administration officials who "unmasked" Flynn following his conversations with the Russian ambassador to the U.S. in 2016, according to U.S. officials. (The Washington Post, 05.13.20)
- Former U.S. President Barack Obama shared deep worries May 8 about the Justice Department's decision to drop its prosecution of Flynn. Obama also appeared to slam the Trump administration's response to the coronavirus pandemic as an "absolute chaotic disaster.” (The Washington Post, 05.09.20)
- U.S. emergency officials say ventilators sent to the U.S. by Russia to help treat COVID-19 patients are the same model that reportedly caused two deadly fires in Russian hospitals. Early on May 13, Russia's health-care regulator said it had suspended usage of the devices, produced by the Urals Instrument-Engineering Plant. The devices were never deployed to U.S. hospitals and are being returned to the U.S. federal government. (RFE/RL, 05.13.20)
- Russia's Foreign Ministry has expressed "extreme indignation" at a U.S. statement on May 8 that seemed to ascribe the victory over Nazi Germany in 1945 to the U.S. and Britain. On its Instagram account, the White House posted a video and the words: "On May 8, 1945, America and Great Britain had victory over the Nazis! America's spirit will always win. In the end, that's what happens.'" (RFE/RL, 05.10.20)
- The New York Times stands by its reporting on Russia’s low coronavirus death figures and will not issue a retraction, the paper’s vice president Danielle Rhoades Ha said. Russia’s Foreign Ministry has earlier demanded that the New York Times and the Financial Times retract reports that Russia could be undercounting its COVID-19 deaths. Overall, about 70 percent of coronavirus-related deaths have not been reported in Moscow and about 80 percent in the country’s regions, Aleksei Raksha, demographer in Moscow told the New York Times. The Financial Times also reported that Russia’s national death toll from coronavirus could be 70 percent higher than the government’s official data shows. (The Moscow Times, 05.14.20, Financial Times, 05.11.20, New York Times, 05.11.20)
- Russia's media regulator, Roskomnadzor, has asked Google to block an article about the controversy over official data on coronavirus deaths in the country on the website of MBKh Media independent online publication. (RFE/RL, 05.15.20)
- Facebook has again blocked the Instagram account of Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov, as well as several other accounts that he used, saying it was following sanctions imposed by the U.S. against many Russian officials. (RFE/RL, 05.14.20)
- A Russian court has upheld a decision to keep former U.S. Marine Paul Whelan in detention until mid-September while his trial on espionage charges is ongoing. Whelan denies the allegations against him, calling them political in nature, and has alleged being mistreated by guards. (RFE/RL, 05.14.20)
- Trump's former campaign chairman Paul Manafort has been released from a federal prison due to coronavirus concerns and will continue serving his 7 ½ year sentence for tax and bank fraud from his Northern Virginia home. (Wall Street Journal, 05.13.20)
II. Russia’s domestic policies
Domestic politics, economy and energy:
- Russia confirmed 10,598 new coronavirus infections May 15, bringing the country’s official number of cases to 262,843. Russia is now the second most-affected country in terms of infections and has the world's second-fastest rate of new infections behind the U.S. Over the past 24 hours, 113 people died, bringing the total toll to 2,305. (The Moscow Times, 05.15.20) 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.
- More than 60 percent of deaths among Moscow’s coronavirus patients are not being included toward the city’s official virus death toll, city health officials said May 13. “Over 60 percent of deaths occurred from obvious alternate causes, such as vascular accidents, stage 4 malignant diseases, leukemia, systemic diseases linked to organ failure and other incurable deadly diseases,” Moscow's Health Department said in a statement. (The Moscow Times, 05.14.20)
- Russia’s health minister told lawmakers on May 13 that COVID-19 outbreaks have appeared in 400 hospitals nationwide. About 2,000 medics have been infected in Moscow, 1,500 in St. Petersburg, almost 450 in southern Russia’s Krasnodar region, more than 200 in the republic of North Ossetia and more than 100 in Kalmykia. An unofficial “list of memory” with the names of Russian and Belarussian medics who have died after being infected with COVID-19 listed 190 names as of May 14. (The Moscow Times, 05.14.20)
- Putin's spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, and his wife, Tatyana Navka, have tested positive for the coronavirus and are in the hospital being treated for COVID-19. (RFE/RL, 05.12.20)
- Early clinical trials of an antiviral drug in Russia have given “promising” results in treating the new coronavirus. Of 40 coronavirus patients who took a favipiravir pill, 60 percent tested negative for COVID-19 within five days compared to 30 percent in the control group. (The Moscow Times, 05.14.20)
- Government officials expect the economy to contract by 6 percent this year, the budget to swing to a deficit worth 4 percent of gross domestic product and unemployment to double. The task for Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Mishutin’s stand-in Andrei Belousov borders on the impossible. Suppress the world’s second-fastest growing rate of coronavirus infections while also lifting a six-week-long national lockdown that has paralyzed the economy. Fail, and further dent public support for the president, whose approval ratings fell last month to a record low in his 20 years in power. (Financial Times, 05.13.20)
- Russia's largest bank Sberbank reported net income of 11.5billion rubles ($155 million) in April 2020, plunging by 85 percent year on year and 81 percent month on month. (bne IntelliNews, 05.14.20)
- Russian lawmakers have passed a bill to allow Russians to vote by mail or online for Putin’s constitutional amendments that would allow him to stay in power through 2036. (The Moscow Times, 05.13.20)
- Rosneft's Russian Regional Development Bank has since 2017 owned 24.2 million euros of debt held by BNM, the joint-stock company that owns Vedomosti, according to the joint investigation by Vedomosti, Forbes Russia,Meduza and The Bell. The findings follow widespread suspicion of Rosneft’s involvement in high-profile censorship scandals at Vedomosti, including its new chief editor changing a headline on the Russian government’s majority stake in the oil giant and deleting a column critical of Rosneft head Igor Sechin. (The Moscow Times, 05.12.20)
- Sechin, the head of Rosneft, on May 14 asked Putin for a tax exemption for investments into genetic technology. Sechin said his 350,000 employees will act as "anchor" customers for Russia's new genetic research center. (The Moscow Times, 05.15.20)
- Putin held a watered-down celebration of the Soviet defeat of Nazi Germany on May 9. "We will have both our main parade on Red Square and the Immortal Regiment people's march," Putin said. He made no direct mention of the coronavirus during his address. (The Washington Post, 05.09.20, The Moscow Times, 05.09.20)
Defense and aerospace:
- The Russian Navy's newest ballistic missile-equipped, nuclear-powered strategic submarine Project 955A Borei-A class, Knyaz Vladimir, has headed out for its final sea trials. The nuclear-powered submarine was originally set to formally join the Northern Fleet in 2017, but that schedule repeatedly slipped due to technical issues. (China Daily, 05.15.20)
- The Russian Defense Ministry says 1,205 troops and cadets have tested positive for COVID-19 as of May 12. At least 376 cadets who were involved in rehearsals for the postponed Victory Day parade in April contracted the virus, according to a report by the Proekt investigative outlet. (The Moscow Times, 05.14.20)
- Russia’s Defense Ministry has completed the construction of 16 multi-purpose medical centers in 15 regions of the country to treat coronavirus patients. (TASS, 05.15.20)
Security, law-enforcement and justice:
- More than 600 wardens and 145 prisoners in Russia have been confirmed to have COVID-19 as of May 13. (The Moscow Times, 05.14.20)
- A Russian couple charged with high treason have gone on trial for photographs taken at their wedding five years ago and published online that allegedly revealed the identity of an FSB security operative. Konstantin Antonets and Antonina Zimina were detained in July 2018 in Russia's Baltic Sea exclave of Kaliningrad. (RFE/RL, 05.14.20)
- Russian police officers have organized an online flashmob in support of their former colleague, the founder of a popular online community that reports abuse within law enforcement who has been jailed on extortion charges. Vladimir Vorontsov, who founded the “Police Ombudsman” social media channel, has had his home searched by police twice within a month. (The Moscow Times, 05.12.20)
III. Russia’s relations with other countries
Russia’s general foreign policy and relations with “far abroad” countries:
- The COVID-19 pandemic along with terrorism dominated the video conference of Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) foreign ministers from India, Pakistan, China, Russia and four Central Asian countries. A SCO joint declaration, also endorsed by India, strongly called for centrality of the U.N. system in combating COVID-19 and noted the need for effective cooperation with WHO and other international bodies. (Tribune India, 05.13.20)
- Russia’s special services are ready to consider providing assistance to Venezuela to investigate the incursion of mercenaries, Lavrov said. Meanwhile, Russia’s largest oil producer, Rosneft, confirmed on May 15 that it had discontinued all operations in Venezuela,, as the firm looks to avoid further U.S. sanctions because of its business with Venezuela. (TASS, 05.12.20, OilPrice, 05.15.20)
- Russian military specialists are now leaving Italy after helping it fight the spread of COVID-19, the Russian Defense Ministry said May 15. Russian military specialists have completed their work in Serbia, where they were also helping to counter the spread of the coronavirus, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said. (Interfax, 05.15.20)
- Switzerland’s Federal Prosecutor plans to share highly sensitive testimony and witness statements relating to the death of Sergei Magnitsky, and the huge Russian tax fraud he exposed, with the Kremlin. The move runs counter to the guidance of four resolutions by the Council of Europe, of which Switzerland is a member, as well as guidance from Interpol. (Financial Times, 05.13.20)
- By late 2012, Moody’s estimated Russian banks and corporates had $31 billion on deposit in Cyprus—more than the island’s annual gross domestic product. Russian banks’ cross-border loans to Cypriot-based Russian companies totaled somewhere between a further $30 billion-$40 billion. Russian investors and their families accounted for nearly half of the 3,153 golden passports awarded between 2013 and February 2018. (Financial Times, 05.15.20)
China-Russia: Allied or Aligned?
- Accusations hurled at Russia and China for spreading “disinformation” about COVID-19 is nothing but the West demonstrating its anti-Russian and anti-Chinese prejudice, Ryabkov said in an online report to the Valdai International Discussion Club. (TASS, 05.14.20)
- The first bridge to allow the passage of vehicles between Russia and China has been given the go ahead to open once coronavirus restrictions are eased. The bridge, which spans the Amur River and links the Russian city of Blagoveshchensk with the Chinese city of Heihe, was completed in 2019. (Newsweek, 05.12.20)
- The number of recovered cases from the coronavirus epidemic exceeded the number of those newly infected on May 13 for the first time since the pandemic began in Ukraine, Health Minister Maksym Stepanov said the morning of May 14. Coronavirus infections rose by 422 cases, or 2.6 percent, in 24 hours to a total of 16,847, he said, citing statistics from the ministry’s Center for Public Health. Recovered patients rose 427 to a total of 4,143 cases. (bne IntelliNews, 05.15.20)
- Ukraine’s doctors have confirmed more than 15,000 COVID-19 cases in the country, with over 400 deaths, the Health Ministry said on May 11. Over May 10, 416 new cases have been recorded. A day earlier 522 new cases were confirmed. (TASS, 05.11.20)
- Separatists violated the ceasefire regime in Donbass 15 times over the past 24 hours and four Ukrainian servicemen were injured, the press service of the Joint Forces Operation headquarters said May 11. (Interfax, 05.11.20)
- Ukraine's parliament has adopted the so-called anti-Kolomoisky bank law in a final reading on May 13 that bans the return of failed banks to their former shareholders and clears the way for Kyiv to sign off on a new IMF deal. Last week, the fund said it was negotiating an 18-month $5 billion standby program with Kyiv rather than an $8 billion three-year extended fund facility. (bne IntelliNews, 05.13.20, Financial Times, 05.13.20)
- Ukraine's real GDP in the first quarter of 2020 fell by 1.5 percent compared with the first quarter of 2019. (Interfax, 05.15.20)
- Ukraine’ grain exports hit 51.5 million tons, up 18 percent year-on-year. With the marketing year to end in six weeks, Ukraine is expected to export a record 54 million tons. (Ukraine Business News, 05.11.20)
- An international law firm based in New York paid at least $11 million to avoid being sued by Yulia Tymoshenko, Ukraine's former prime minister. The law firm Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom paid the money after Tymoshenko accused the company of writing a report that was used to help justify her imprisonment by a political rival, the New York Times reported. (RFE/RL, 05.11.20)
Russia's other post-Soviet neighbors:
- U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo says the first shipment of U.S. crude oil to Belarus will depart this week. A spokesman for the Belarusian state petrochemicals concern Belneftekhim told reporters the tanker will leave Beaumont, Texas, on May 17 and is expected to reach the port of Klaipeda in Lithuania in early June. (RFE/RL, 05.15.20)
- Polish authorities have detained four Tajik nationals on charges of attempting to recruit Muslim converts to carry out militant attacks. Stanislaw Zaryn, the spokesman for the minister coordinating special forces, said on May 11 that the four men would be expelled and barred from reentering Poland and the rest of Europe's passport-free Schengen Area. (RFE/RL, 05.11.20)
- No significant developments.