Russia in Review, Nov. 21-30, 2018

This Week’s Highlights:

  • U.S. President Donald Trump cancelled his scheduled G20 meeting with Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin at the last minute, citing Russia’s capture of Ukrainian ships and crew off Crimea as the reason, according to his press secretary. European leaders and NATO also criticized Moscow, but reacted “coolly” to Kiev’s calls for enhanced military measures against Russia, Reuters and Radio Liberty/Radio Free Europe report.  Trump and Putin were still scheduled to have a brief impromptu meeting, according to the Kremlin, though Gazeta.ru reported that the two leaders did not shake hands when Trump walked past Putin during the opening of the G20.
  • Trump’s ex-lawyer Michael Cohen has admitted he knowingly lied to Congress about the extent of his former boss’s involvement in a Moscow real estate project pursued during the 2016 presidential campaign in order to play down Trump's connection to the efforts, the Wall Street Journal and other media reported. In response, according to the Washington Post, Trump called Cohen a “weak person" who was lying to get a reduced sentence and his own pursuit of business projects while on the campaign trail “very legal & very cool.”
  • Trump told special counsel Robert Mueller in writing that Roger Stone did not tell him about WikiLeaks, nor was he told about the 2016 Trump Tower meeting involving his son, campaign officials and a Russian lawyer promising dirt on Hillary Clinton, according to two unnamed sources cited by CNN. Trump, said one source, was answering to the best of his recollection.

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

Nuclear security and safety:

  • The International Atomic Energy Agency has confirmed Rosenergoatom's commitment to safety, following its successful completion of a corporate Operational Safety Review Team mission. (World Nuclear News, 11.28.18)
  • The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has signed contracts to purchase low-enriched uranium (LEU) from NAC Kazatomprom and Orano Cycle, paving the way for the establishment of the IAEA LEU Bank in 2019. (World Nuclear News, 11.21.18)

North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs:

  • No significant developments.

Iran’s nuclear program and related issues:

  • Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a law ratifying a temporary agreement on formation of a free trade zone between the Eurasian Economic Union and the Islamic Republic of Iran on Nov. 28. (TASS, 11.28.18)

Military issues, including NATO-Russia relations:

  • Russia is a "far greater threat" to Britain's national security than Islamic terrorist groups such as the Islamic State, Gen. Mark Carleton-Smith, the new head of the British army, has warned. (RFE/RL, 11.24.18)
  • Germany plans to boost its armed forces to more than 200,000 soldiers by 2025, the latest sign that Berlin is committed to rebuilding its military after decades of neglect. (Financial Times, 11.29.18)
  • The U.S. Army’s new “Vision” for future war calls for a fast-moving emphasis on long-range precision fire to include missiles, hypersonic weapons and extended-range artillery—to counter Russian threats on the European continent, service officials explain. (The National Interest, 11.27.18)

Missile defense:

  • No significant developments.

Nuclear arms control:

  • Russia has for years been developing, testing and deploying a missile that violates the INF treaty, a senior White House official said Nov. 27, making a case for the administration’s planned withdrawal from the accord ahead of a scheduled meeting between the leaders of the two nations. The official said the Trump administration believes it was Russia’s intention to keep the U.S. constrained by the treaty while they developed and deployed the illegal missiles that threaten Europe. (AP, 11.28.18)
  • Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov told a news conference on Nov. 26 that Moscow wanted to save the INF treaty and was open to talks on the issue with Washington. But Ryabkov, who accused the U.S. of violating the accord with missile deployments in Poland and Romania, said he thought the chances of a change of heart were slim. (Reuters, 11.26.18)
    • The most important point made by Ryabkov is that he insisted that Russia hasn't tested the 9M729 missile to the INF range, according to leading arms control expert Pavel Podvig. Moreover, it appears that this is how Russia has built its defense—since the missile hasn't been tested to the prohibited range, it is treaty-compliant. But, unfortunately for Russia, this is not how the letter of the treaty works—for a missile to be in violation it is sufficient that it has the "range capability,” according to Podvig. (Russian Strategic Nuclear Forces, 11.26.18)
  • The Netherlands accused Russia on Nov. 26 of developing a prohibited cruise missile in violation of the INF Treaty. “The Netherlands can independently confirm that Russia has developed and is currently introducing a ground-based cruise weapon," the country’s Foreign and Defense Ministers wrote in a joint letter published on the website of the lower house of the Dutch parliament on Nov. 27. (The Moscow Times, 11.28.18)

Counter-terrorism:

  • Newly unsealed court documents revealed that Dzhokhar Tsarnaev's college classmate Dias Kadyrbayev was the previously unnamed prosecution witness offering to testify that Tsarnaev knew that his older brother was involved in the Waltham killings in 2011. (The Boston Globe, 11.24.18)

Conflict in Syria:

  • The U.N. envoy to Syria, Staffan de Mistura has called the last Syria peace talks of the year in Astana a "missed opportunity" for the Syrian people, as talks ended without results. The U.S. State Department said the talks has “failed to produce progress.” The setup of the Idlib de-escalation zone should not undermine Syria’s sovereignty, the guarantors of the Astana process—Russia, Iran and Turkey—said in a joint statement adopted at the Astana meeting on Syria. The communique also targeted Washington's continued military presence in the country. (RFE/RL, 11.29.18, AP, 11.29.18, Wall Street Journal, 11.25.18, TASS, 11.29.18)
  • The Russian Defense Ministry says militants are preparing a chemical attack on the U.S.-backed fighters in eastern Syria. (AP, 11.28.18)
  • Russian Defense Ministry spokesman Igor Konashenkov said on Nov. 25 that specialists from Russian nuclear, chemical and biological warfare protection units had arrived at the scene of the attacks in Aleppo after Syrian state TV broadcast footage of medics treating people for what appeared to be injuries related to the use of chemical weapons. (RFE/RL, 11.25.18)
  • The Pentagon cautioned Russia on Nov. 27 not to tamper with the site of an alleged gas attack in Syria's Aleppo and allow investigators to inspect the site. (Reuters, 11.27.18)
  • The OPCW will investigate an alleged gas attack in Syria's Aleppo on Nov. 24 that reportedly wounded up to 100 people, the head of the agency said on Nov. 26. (Reuters, 11.26.18)
  • Russia is claiming that the West is seeking to turn an international convention on chemical weapons into a tool to pursue its own agenda. The accusation was leveled by Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on Nov. 21, a day after Russia failed to prevent the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons from receiving new powers to assign blame for chemical attacks like those in Syria or Britain. (RFE/RL, 11.21.18)

Cyber security:

  • Facebook knew that Russian-linked entities were using a feature on the social network that let advertisers harvest large amounts of data as early as October 2014, according to an internal email a U.K. lawmaker said he had reviewed. (Bloomberg, 11.27.18)
  • "There’s still a concentrated Russian cyber espionage campaign targeting the bulk of the U.S. electrical grid," says FireEye analyst Alex Orleans. "The grid is still getting hit … [and] we likely haven’t fully uncovered the extent to which they have gotten into the wires." (Wired, 11.28.18)
  • The Russian military has reportedly issued secure thumb drives for servicemen to store classified data in the wake of embarrassing revelations about Russian troop deployments in Ukraine and Syria and open-source investigations into its military intelligence. (The Moscow Times, 11.27.18)

Elections interference:

  • Michael Cohen told special counsel Robert Mueller he lied to Congress to play down U.S. President Donald Trump's involvement during the 2016 campaign in efforts to build a Trump Tower in Moscow, raising the pressure on his former boss as investigators probe his business relationship with Russia. Cohen pleaded guilty to one charge brought by Mueller's office of lying to Congress about the Russian real-estate project, saying he purposely minimized Trump's connection to the project. (Wall Street Journal, 11.29.18)
    • After Cohen's court appearance Nov. 29, Trump called him a "weak person" and accused him of lying to get a reduced sentence. Trump said he had opted not to do the Moscow project because he was "focused on running for president." Trump on Nov. 30 defended his pursuit of a real estate project in Russia at the same time he was securing the Republican presidential nomination in 2016, saying it was “very legal & very cool.”  Rudy Giuliani, a lawyer for Trump, said his legal team doesn't dispute Cohen's claims about the president's involvement in the Moscow project. (Wall Street Journal, 11.29.18, The Washington Post, 11.30.18)
  • U.S. President Donald Trump told special counsel Robert Mueller in writing that Roger Stone did not tell him about WikiLeaks, nor was he told about the 2016 Trump Tower meeting between his son, campaign officials and a Russian lawyer promising dirt on Hillary Clinton, according to two sources familiar with the matter. One source described Trump’s answers without providing any direct quotes and said Trump made clear he was answering to the best of his recollection. (CNN, 11.29.18)
    • Mueller's investigation bores into whether Stone served as a bridge between Trump and WikiLeaks as the group was publishing hacked Democratic emails. Mueller's keen interest in their relationship was laid out in a draft court document revealed this week in which prosecutors drew a direct line between the two men—referring to Stone as someone understood to be in regular contact with senior Trump campaign officials, "including with then-candidate Donald J. Trump." (The Washington Post, 11.28.18)
    • Conservative writer and conspiracy theorist Jerome Corsi is in plea negotiations with Mueller. Mueller’s team believes Corsi tipped off Trump confidant Roger Stone months before WikiLeaks released thousands of emails stolen from Hillary Clinton’s campaign chairman, according to a document newly made public. The document, drafted as part of a plea offer to Corsi, reveals that Mueller is keenly focused on whether Americans close to the Trump campaign had any foreknowledge of WikiLeaks’ plans to release hacked material during the 2016 presidential campaign. (The Washington Post, 11.23.18, AP, 11.28.18)
  • Former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort breached his plea deal by lying to federal investigators, U.S. prosecutors said in a court filing, signaling a potential setback to the special counsel's probe. Manafort said in the same filing on Nov. 26 that he disagreed with special counsel Robert Mueller's assertion that he had lied, but both sides agreed the court should move ahead and sentence him for his crimes. (Reuters, 11.27.18, AP, 11.29.18)
    • Manafort's alleged misstatements to Mueller's investigators include comments about his personal business dealings and about his contacts with a former associate in Ukraine, say people familiar with the matter. Those statements—among those described by Mueller as "lies" and Manafort as "truthful information" in a Nov. 26 court filing—are what led Mueller this week to take the unusual step of ending the former Trump campaign chairman's plea agreement 2½ months after it was reached, the people said. (Wall Street Journal, 11.28.18)
    • WikiLeaks on Nov. 27 hit back against a media report that its founder, Julian Assange, held secret talks with Manafort at the Ecuadorean embassy in London. Manafort also denied ever meeting with Assange after the Guardian newspaper published a story alleging the two met at least three times. (Financial Times, 11.27.18, RFE/RL, 11.28.18)
    • A pardon for Manafort is “not off the table,” Trump said. Kevin Downing, a lawyer for Manafort, repeatedly briefed Trump’s lawyers on his client’s discussions with federal investigators after Manafort agreed to cooperate with the special counsel, according to Trump lawyer Rudolph Giuliani and two other people familiar with the conversations. (New York Times, 11.27.18, Reuters, 11.27.18, AP, 11.29.18)
  • When asked by The Washington Post if he would commit right here to letting Robert Mueller continue his work until the investigation concludes, U.S. President Donald Trump said: “This question has been asked about me now for almost two years. And in the meantime, he's still there. He wouldn't have to be, but he's still there, so I have no intention of doing anything.” Earlier, Trump unleashed another blistering attack on Mueller, calling the special counsel investigating Russian election interference a "conflicted prosecutor gone rogue" who is doing "TREMENDOUS damage" to the criminal justice system. (The Washington Post, 11.27.18, The Washington Post, 11.27.18)
  • U.S. President Donald Trump said he had “no intention” of moving to stop special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation. “The Mueller investigation is what it is. It just goes on and on and on,” he said. When pressed on whether he would commit to letting the probe continue until its conclusion, Trump stopped short of making an explicit pledge. (The Washington Post, 11.27.18)
  • The Senate’s bipartisan Russia probe could stretch well into the first half of 2019, according to Senate Intelligence Chairman Richard Burr, despite U.S. President Donald Trump’s fatigue with investigations of his campaign. (Bloomberg, 11.23.18)
  • The Senate Judiciary Committee has canceled a Nov. 29 vote on more than 20 federal judge nominations amid a standoff between Republican Sen. Jeff Flake and GOP leaders over legislation to protect special counsel Robert Mueller. (AP, 11.29.18)
  • A U.S. federal judge on Nov. 25 denied a motion by George Papadopoulos, a former Trump campaign aide, seeking to postpone his sentence pending a separate case he hoped would lead to his conviction being overturned. (Reuters, 11.26.18)
  • U.S. Vice President Mike Pence and Russian President Vladimir Putin huddled last week at a summit in Asia for about 15 minutes. "So I looked at him and I said, 'We know what happened in 2016,' " Pence said in an interview. "And I said, 'As the president has told you, we're not having it.'" Putin denied that Russia had done anything wrong, but Pence stuck to his guns. (The Washington Post, 11.23.18)
  • Former FBI Director James Comey has asked a U.S. judge to quash a subpoena from congressional Republicans compelling him to testify behind closed doors about his decisions on the Russia investigation ahead of the 2016 presidential election. (RFE/RL, 11.30.18)
  • "Except for Russia, no other country's efforts to influence American politics and society is as extensive and well-funded as China's," specialists say in a report issued Nov. 29 by a working group convened by the Hoover Institution and the Asia Society's Center on U.S.-China Relations. (The Washington Post, 11.28.18)

Energy exports:

  • Light, sweet crude for January delivery rose 2.3 percent to $51.45 a barrel on the New York Mercantile Exchange. Oil rebounded on reports that Russia is negotiating with Saudi Arabia, the de facto leader of OPEC, on how much Russian oil output needs to be curtailed and when. (Wall Street Journal, 11.30.18)
  • Oil and gas brings in around 40 percent of Russia’s budget revenues, and a good chunk of that comes from the country’s 35 percent share of the European gas market. (Wall Street Journal, 11.26.18)
  • Russia’s Gazprom is developing plans to extend a multibillion-dollar gas pipeline to four south and central European countries via Turkey. TurkStream gas will travel from Turkey to Bulgaria, then Serbia, Hungary and Slovakia, Russia’s Kommersant reported. (The Moscow Times, 11.23.18)
  • German Chancellor Angela Merkel dismissed a U.S. and Ukrainian suggestion that the EU increase pressure on Russia by canceling the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline project over the Kerch Strait incident. Germany is still committed to the NordStream 2 pipeline, which will allow Russia to bypass Ukraine in transporting gas to Europe, despite escalating tension in the region, a government spokesman in Berlin said on Nov. 28. (RFE/RL, 11.30.18, Reuters, 11.28.18)
  • Russia’s June delivery of LNG to India, the first under a 20-year deal, was priced at around $7 per million British thermal units, around $1 to $1.50 cheaper than comparable deliveries from Qatar or the U.S. (Wall Street Journal, 11.26.18)
  • Saudi Arabia is set to expand its market share in China this year for the first time since 2012, with demand stirred up by new Chinese refiners pushing the kingdom back into contention with Russia as top supplier to the world's largest oil buyer. (Reuters, 11.28.18)

Bilateral economic ties:

  • No significant developments.

Other bilateral issues:

  • ''I probably will be meeting with President Putin,'' U.S. President Donald Trump told reporters at the White House just after 10:30 a.m. on Nov. 29 as he left on the trip to Buenos Aires. ''I think it's a very good time to have the meeting.'' He added that he would be getting a report on Air Force One about the Russia-Ukraine confrontation ''and that will determine what I'm going to be doing.'' At 11:34 a.m., he reversed himself, announcing on Twitter that he would scrap the meeting after all, attributing the move to the Ukraine conflict. ''Based on the fact that the ships and sailors have not been returned to Ukraine from Russia, I have decided it would be best for all parties concerned to cancel my previously scheduled meeting in Argentina with President Vladimir Putin,'' Trump wrote. ''I look forward to a meaningful Summit again as soon as this situation is resolved!'' he added. (New York Times, 11.29.18)
    • Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the White House press secretary, told reporters on Air Force One that Trump had scrubbed the meeting after reviewing the report on Russia's actions against Ukraine. Trump conferred with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and John Kelly, the White House chief of staff, who were on the plane, and by telephone with John Bolton, his national security adviser. (New York Times, 11.29.18)
    • The Kremlin said it regrets Trump’s decision to cancel a meeting with Putin at the upcoming G20 summit. "This means that discussion of important issues on the international and bilateral agenda will be postponed indefinitely,” Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov told Russian state media. Putin, he said on Nov. 29, "is ready to have contacts with his American counterpart." On Nov. 30,  Peskov said Putin will have a brief impromptu meeting with Trump just as he will with other leaders at the G20 summit. However, Gazeta.ru reported that the two leaders did not shake hands when Trump walked past Putin during the opening of G20. (RFE/RL, 11.30.18, Reuters, 11.30.18, Russia Matters, 11.30.18)
    • Prior to Trump’s decision to cancel the meeting, Peskov told reporters Nov. 29 that the two leaders were to start with one-on-one talks and then continue broader negotiations involving officials from both sides. Peskov said that the two leaders were to discuss an array of issues, including nuclear arms control, strategic security and regional conflicts. (The Washington Post, 11.29.18, The Washington Post, 11.27.18, AP, 11.28.18, Reuters, 11.28.18, AP, 11.29.18, CNBC, 11.29.18, AP, 11.29.18, Washington Post, 11.29.18)  See more in the Ukraine subsection.
  • “We don't want to move away from the dollar. The dollar is moving away from us," Russian President Vladimir Putin said at a forum before an audience that included foreign business executives, suggesting that U.S. sanctions were restricting Russian transactions in dollars. "The people who are making decisions aren't shooting themselves in the foot, but somewhere a bit higher up," he said. (RFE/RL, 11.29.18)
  • The U.S. is unlikely to pass new sanctions on Russia until at least March or April and penalties over a nerve-agent attack may be delayed indefinitely as anti-Kremlin rhetoric loses momentum, according to Alexis Rodzianko, president of the American Chamber of Commerce in Russia. (Bloomberg, 11.21.18)
  • Maria Butina, accused of being a secret agent for the Russian government, appears to be coming closer to a plea deal with U.S. prosecutors or other resolution of her criminal case, according to court documents filed Nov. 28. Lawyers for Butina and federal prosecutors wrote in the joint court filing that they “remain optimistic about a pretrial resolution” of her case. (AP, 11.28.18)
  • U.S. prosecutors have indicted eight people, most of them Russian, for an alleged online fraud involving fake advertising that caused companies to lose tens of millions of dollars, the Justice Department announced late on November 27. (RFE/RL, 11.28.18)
  • Hungary denied a U.S. request to extradite two suspected Russian arms dealers and sent the men to Russia, where it is unclear if they will face trial, the State Department said Nov. 27. (Reuters, 11.27.18)
  • The Russian Embassy in the U.S. says it is looking into the circumstances of the death of Russian citizen Mergensana Amar who died at an immigration jail in the state of Washington. (RFE/RL, 11.29.18)
  • Russia’s media watchdog has moved to fine Google for refusing to comply with government demands to censor banned websites from search results. (Financial Times 11.26.18)
  • Facebook has reportedly blocked a post on its social media networks in compliance with a recent Russian law that calls on tech giants to block content ruled defamatory by judges in what internet freedom advocates predict will become a common practice. (The Moscow Times, 11.26.18)
  • Russia is working to subvert free speech both at home and abroad, and is stepping up pressure on its independent media, the U.S. has warned at a meeting of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. (RFE/RL, 11.23.18)
  • The head of Russia's Roscosmos space agency has said that a proposed Russian mission to the moon will be tasked with verifying that the American moon landings were real. (AP, 11.24.18)

II. Russia’s domestic news

Politics, economy and energy:

  • Sixty-one percent of Russians believe Vladimir Putin is fully responsible for the problems the country is facing under his rule, according to a new poll published by the Levada Center. (The Moscow Times, 11.23.18)
  • According to a survey published on Nov. 22 by the Levada Center, if another presidential election were to take place now, 56 percent of the survey’s respondents who said they are likely to vote, said they would vote for Vladimir Putin—10 percentage points fewer than one year ago. (RFE/RL, 11.23.18)
  • Russian President Vladimir Putin on Nov. 28 joked that he had no plans to go anywhere when asked to comment on what will happen in 2024 when his current term in the Kremlin is due to end. (Reuters, 11.28.18)
  • Russia's State Duma has passed a three-year budget that pursues a macroeconomically sound policy projected to bring a $62 billion surplus over the period. The new budget plan envisions a surplus of 1.9 trillion rubles ($28.8 billion) next year, 1.2 trillion rubles in 2020 and 952 billion rubles in 2021. Analysts have said that the 2019-2021 budget’s strategy to store $200 billion in rainy-day funds is prudent but bad for growth. (The Moscow Times, 11.21.18)
  • Russia has introduced a new tax that will affect self-employed babysitters, tutors, translators and other freelancers in Moscow and three other regions starting on Jan. 1, 2019. The new law is part of an effort to raise tax revenues and legalize the under-the-table income of an estimated 20 million self-employed Russians who do not currently pay taxes. (The Moscow Times, 11.28.18)
  • The Russian government plans to spend the equivalent of $100 billion during the next five years on dozens of bridges, ports and transportation links. (Wall Street Journal, 11.29.18)
  • Russia is planning to issue a seven-year euro-denominated bond, according to a finance ministry official, a sign Moscow is moving away from the dollar amid concerns over U.S. sanctions. (Financial Times, 11.27.18)
  • Lukoil, Russia’s second-largest oil producer, has reported an 89 percent leap in third-quarter net profit citing rising sales, higher oil and gas prices and a weaker ruble. (Financial Times, 11.28.18)
  • Moscow has rejected a fresh report co-authored by the World Health Organization that shows Russia registered the highest number of fresh HIV cases in Europe last year. Russian Health Minister Veronika Skvortsova told reporters on Nov. 29 that, according to Russian state statistics, the number of new HIV diagnoses in the country was 85,802, not 104,000 as the report stated.  (RFE/RL, 11.30.18)

Defense and aerospace:

  • Russian President Vladimir Putin has called on weapons manufacturers to speed up the construction of missiles despite their increasing complexity. Russia is set to spend close to $120 billion on national defense over the next three years, averaging about $40 billion per year from 2018 to 2020. (The Moscow Times, 11.23.18)
  • The chief of Russia’s GRU military intelligence agency, Igor Korobov, has died after “a serious and long illness,” Russian media reported on Nov. 21, quoting the Russian Defense Ministry. (RFE/RL, 11.22.18)
  • The Russian military has said that it received its first batch of a new Tor-M2DT surface-to-air missile system equipped to fight in the Arctic. (The Moscow Times, 11.26.18)
  • At least one “critical defect” has been discovered at the multibillion-ruble Vostochny Cosmodrome in Far East Russia that operators claim was fixed last month. (The Moscow Times, 11.27.18)

Security, law-enforcement and justice:

  • A Russian official says the country’s top domestic security agency has thwarted a series of attacks on schools in the wake of last month’s shooting-and-bomb attack by a teenager on a school in Crimea. (AP, 11.22.18)
  • Russia has drawn up draft legislation aimed at stopping leaks of personal information from state agencies, a step that follows publication of details of Russians allegedly involved in clandestine intelligence operations abroad. (Reuters, 11.23.18)
  • The European Court of Human Rights issued a fresh rebuke to the Kremlin on Nov. 27, ruling that Russia's continued ban on LGBT rallies is discriminatory and represents a violation of human rights. (AP, 11.27.18)
  • Maksim Lapunov, who says he was abducted and beaten by police in Chechnya because he is gay has vowed to take his case to the European Court of Human Rights after unsuccessful efforts to "find justice" in his home country. (RFE/RL, 11.27.18)
  • Amnesty International has criticized the refusal of a court in Russia's Chechnya region to release leading activist Oyub Titiyev on bail. (RFE/RL, 11.27.18)
  • In a Nov. 27 ruling, a court in Ingushetia found Magomed Khazbiyev guilty of inciting hatred towards regional leader Yunus-Bek Yevkurov and other officials and law enforcement authorities, as well as illegal weapon possession, and sentenced him to two years and 11 months in a colony-settlement. (RFE/RL, 11.28.18)
  • An activist with Russian human rights group Vesna, Valentin Khoroshenin, has been detained over a demonstration of support for Ingushetia residents in their border dispute with Chechnya. (RFE/RL, 11.28.18)
  • Russian rapper Husky was released from jail on Nov. 26 after a court cancelled an earlier ruling imposing a 12-day sentence for hooliganism. Husky, 25, whose real name is Dmitry Kuznetsov, is known for songs mocking the authorities and criticizing police brutality in Russia. (RFE/RL, 11.26.18)
  • At least 12 shopping centers in Moscow were evacuated Nov. 28 after receiving anonymous bomb threats, a year after a wave of hoax bomb scares prompted mass evacuations throughout the country. (The Moscow Times, 11.28.18)

III. Foreign affairs, trade and investment

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

  • The leaders of the world’s largest economies, the G20, opened talks on Nov. 30 overshadowed by U.S. President Donald Trump’s threat to escalate tariffs on imports from China as well as military tensions between Russia and Ukraine. Russian President Vladimir Putin and Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman exchanged a high-five and a handshake and laughed heartily as they took seats next to each other in the main meeting room. (Reuters, 11.30.18, Reuters, 11.30.18)
  • Negotiations between Japan and Russia over four disputed islands have entered a new phase, according to diplomats close to the talks, as Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Russian President Vladimir Putin prepare to meet at the G20 summit in Buenos Aires on Dec. 1. The two sides appeared to move closer at a meeting this month in Singapore, and negotiators are now making a serious effort to explore the potential for a deal. Abe is expected to visit Russia again in January. (Financial Times, 11.28.18)
  • Turkey charged 28 people on Nov. 23 in relation to the 2016 assassination of the Russian Ambassador to Ankara, naming the U.S.-based Islamic cleric Fethullah Gulen as the prime suspect in the case, the state-owned Anadolu news agency said. (Reuters, 11.23.18)
  • Russia would be ready to host a meeting between Palestinians and Israel and to act as a mediator, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Nov. 23.  (Reuters, 11.23.18)
  • The top leader of the Hamas militant group says he has received an invitation to make an official visit to Moscow. The office of Ismail Haniyeh said the invitation was delivered Nov. 27 by a visiting Russian diplomat. Its statement did not elaborate on the purpose of the visit. (AP, 11.28.18)
  •  “With crude oil prices remaining low, the Arab countries are asking themselves why they are paying millions of dollars more than they need to for wheat imports,” a German trader said. “In a direct price fight, I would expect Russian wheat to take the main share of markets opened to them,” the trader added. (Reuters, 11.22.18)
  • Lebanon has accepted a Russian aid offer comprising millions of bullets that will be given to its police force, the office of the caretaker prime minister said on Nov. 26, denying reports an offer of Russian military aid had been turned down. (Reuters, 11.26.18)
  • The impoverished state of Central African Republic landed a windfall on Nov. 27, at least on paper, when Russian state bank VTB reported it had lent the country $12 billion—but the bank then said it was a clerical error and there was no such loan. (Reuters, 11.27.18)
  • Former Russian oil tycoon and Kremlin opponent Mikhail Khodorkovsky has alleged that Russians working for the Central African Republic played a "serious" role in the deaths of three Russian journalists. (RFE/RL, 11.27.18)
  • British police on Nov. 22 released more video footage of the two suspects they believe poisoned former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter. Police released video footage of two men arriving and moving around Salisbury on March 4, the day the Skripals were found slumped in the center of the city. (Reuters, 11.23.18)
  • On Nov. 22, Bellingcat and Russian website The Insider said they identified a second Russian GRU military intelligence officer allegedly involved in a 2016 coup attempt in Montenegro, naming him as Vladimir Moiseyev. The investigation of the coup and court proceedings have riveted Montenegro, including the sensational, and head-scratching, allegation that the coup backers recruited former CIA officer Joseph Assad to help ferry its plotters out of Montenegro. (RFE/RL, 11.23.18, New York Times, 11.23.18)
  • Vyacheslav Maltsev, an outspoken Kremlin critic and leader of an outlawed Russian nationalist opposition movement, says he received political asylum in France. (RFE/RL, 11.27.18)

China:

  • "The relations between the Russian Federation and People's Republic of China are on the rise," President Vladimir Putin said in a welcome message at a Russian-Chinese Energy Forum in Beijing on Nov. 29. "An important part of these relations is energy cooperation which has lately received significant development." Putin is scheduled to meet his Chinese and French counterparts on Nov. 30 on the sidelines of the G20, according to Russian television. (CNBC, 11.29.18, Russia Matters, 11.30.18)

Ukraine:

  • Russia fired on three Ukrainian naval ships on Nov. 25 as they attempted to pass through the narrow Kerch Strait into the Sea of Azov, which lies between Russia and Ukraine. Russia subsequently seized the three Ukrainian vessels and reportedly towed them to the Crimean port city of Kerch. Ukraine's navy said that six of its sailors had been injured in the incident. According to Ukraine's state security service, a Ukrainian military counterintelligence officer was seriously wounded after Russian aircraft fired missiles at the Ukrainian vessels. Russia's human rights ombudsman Tatyana Moskalkova said that Russia had detained 24 Ukrainian sailors in the incident, with three being treated for minor injuries at a Crimean hospital. (The Moscow Times, 11.26.18, Reuters, 11.27.18)
    • Ukrainian actions and reactions:
      • According to the Ukrainian navy, the Russian side was notified in advance of the ships’ movement from Odessa to Mariupol, a Ukrainian port city on the Sea of Azov. (The Moscow Times, 11.26.18)
      • Ukraine released what it said was the exact location where its ships were fired on Nov. 25 by Russia, showing that they were in international waters approaching the Kerch Strait from the west, not from the east, as Russian President Vladimir Putin suggested. (AP, 11.28.18)
      • Ukraine introduced martial law in 10 of its 27 regions after the incident. The 10 provinces all border Russia or Moldova’s breakaway Transdniester region, where Russian troops are stationed, or have coastlines on the Black Sea or the Sea of Azov close to Crimea. (RFE/RL, 11.28.18)
      • Ukraine's defense ministry put its troops on military alert Nov. 26. (Wall Street Journal, 11.26.18)
      • Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko warned late on Nov. 27 that the conflict threatens to turn into a "full-scale war.” On Nov. 29, Poroshenko urged NATO members to send naval vessels to Ukraine’s coastal waters for joint patrols in order, he said, to prevent Russia from imposing a sea blockade of exports. (Financial Times, 11.29.18, RFE/RL, 11.28.18)
      • Ukraine threatened to escalate tensions with Russia on Nov. 30, with a top security official in Kiev saying authorities could respond in kind to the detention of three Ukrainian naval ships over the weekend. "The decision is being made on whether or not to take corresponding reciprocal measures as our country's response to the Russian aggressor," Ihor Huskov, a top official at the Security Service of Ukraine, said, according to Interfax. (Wall Street Journal, 11.30.18)
      • The commander of the Ukrainian navy suggested that countries retaliate against Russia by closing the Bosporus in Turkey to Russian military traffic, citing a 1930s treaty that might justify such a move. (New York Times, 11.29.18)
      • Ukraine has barred Russian male nationals between 16 and 60 from traveling to the country, Poroshenko announced on Nov. 30. The Russian male nationals would be barred from entering Ukraine during the period of martial law, which is due to continue until Dec. 26. (RFE/RL, 11.30.18)
      • Ukraine's Infrastructure Minister Volodymyr Omelyan said on Facebook that two Ukrainian ports on the Sea of Azov, Berdyansk and Mariupol, were effectively blockaded by Russia and that 35 vessels were prevented from carrying out normal operations there. The Kremlin denied that Russia was blocking traffic through the Kerch Strait. (RFE/RL, 11.30.18)
      • Dozens of masked Ukrainian nationalists hurled flares and eggs at the Russian consulate in the eastern city of Kharkiv on Nov. 26 in a protest after Russia fired on and seized three Ukrainian vessels over the weekend. (Reuters, 11.26.18, The Moscow Times, 11.27.18)
    • Russian actions and reaction:
      • Russia's FSB said it had been forced to act because the ships had illegally entered the country's territorial waters and that Ukrainian naval ships ignored warning shots, forcing Russian vessels to open fire for real. At a briefing with French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian, Sergei Lavrov described Ukraine's actions as "provocations." (The Moscow Times, 11.26.18, Reuters, 11.26.18, Reuters, 11.27.18)
      • In two days of hearings, courts in Russian-controlled Crimea ordered all 24 Ukrainian sailors that the Russian Coast Guard detained along with their ships in the Kerch Strait to be held in custody for two months pending possible trial, defying calls from Kiev and the West for their immediate release and also signaling that the Kremlin wants to cast the incident as a routine border violation rather than warfare at sea. A Kremlin-appointed ombudswoman in Crimea said the captured Ukrainian naval personnel are being transferred to Moscow. (RFE/RL, 11.30.18, RFE/RL, 11.28.18)
      • Russia's TASS news agency reported on Nov. 29 that three Ukrainian officers wounded in the incident had been released from the hospital. (RFE/RL, 11.29.18)
      • The Russian military said it will bolster the defenses of Russian-controlled Crimea by adding one S-400 surface-to-air missile system to the three already deployed there. (RFE/RL, 11.28.18)
      • Putin has claimed that the confrontation was orchestrated by Poroshenko, who, opinion polls indicate, faces an uphill battle in his expected bid for a second presidential term in an election now officially scheduled for March 31. Putin claimed that the Ukrainian "military vessels intruded into Russian territorial waters and did not answer" the Russian coast guard. "What were they supposed to do?" (RFE/RL, 11.28.18)
      • The Kremlin said on Nov. 28 that Poroshenko had requested to speak by phone to Putin about the standoff, but that Russia had refused. (Reuters, 11.28.18, Reuters, 11.28.18)
      • The Kremlin has rebuffed suggestions that third parties should mediate between Moscow and Kiev. (Financial Times, 11.29.18)
      • Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Alexander Grushko said further Western sanctions against Moscow would not solve any problems, and he warned against using the crisis to escalate political tensions. (Reuters, 11.28.18, , Reuters, 11.27.18)
      • Alexei Navalny, Russia’s leading opposition activist, linked the incident in Kerch with Putin’s falling approval ratings. (The Moscow Times, 11.26.18)
    • Western reaction:
      • When asked whether Russia’s aggression in Ukraine is a cause for concern for the American people, U.S. President Donald Trump responded with a more forceful critique of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s actions than those he has delivered in the past. “I don’t like that aggression,” he said. “I don’t want that aggression at all. Absolutely. And by the way, Europe shouldn’t like that aggression. And Germany shouldn’t like that aggression.” (The Washington Post, 11.27.18)
      • During a phone call on Nov. 28 between Trump and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, "the two leaders expressed deep concern about the incident in the Kerch Strait and the continued detainment of Ukraine's vessels and crew members," White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders said. Erdogan said on Nov. 27 that Russia and Ukraine should solve problems between them through dialogue, saying Ankara wanted the Black Sea to be a "sea of peace." (Reuters, 11.27.18, RFE/RL, 11.28.18)
      • Russia's seizure of three Ukrainian navy vessels represents "a dangerous escalation and a violation of international law," U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said on Nov. 26 in a statement that called for restraint from both countries. U.S. President Donald Trump on Nov. 26 said he does not like what is happening between Russia and Ukraine. U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Nikki Haley warned Russia on Nov. 26 that its seizure of three Ukrainian vessels was an "outrageous violation of sovereign Ukrainian territory" and urged Moscow to reduce tensions caused by its "arrogant" act. (Reuters, 11.26.18, Reuters, 11.26.18, Reuters, 11.26.18)
      • U.S. State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said EU countries should do more to support Ukraine, suggesting they reconsider their support for the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline. "The United States government has taken a very strong position in … support of Ukraine. We would like other countries to do more as well," Nauert said. "Many governments have imposed sanctions on Russia for its actions in Crimea, in Ukraine. Not all of those sanctions … have been fully enforced," she said. (RFE/RL, 11.28.18)
      • The U.S. also wants its European allies to consider further sanctions against Russia over the situation in Ukraine, U.S. Special Representative for Ukraine Negotiations Kurt Volker said on Nov. 28. (Reuters, 11.28.18)
      • EU leaders said they were considering ratcheting up sanctions on Russia for illegally blocking access to the Sea of Azov and because of its defiance of calls to release the Ukrainian sailors. Karin Kneissl, the foreign minister of Austria, which holds the rotating EU presidency, said that the bloc will next month consider further sanctions against Moscow. "Everything depends on the accounts of events and the actions of both sides. But it will need to be reviewed," Kneissl told reporters. (RFE/RL, 11.28.18)
      • German Chancellor Angela Merkel said on Nov. 29 that she would demand the release of the Ukrainian ships and crew and allow free passage to the Sea of Azov. She said a solution to the conflict would only come through negotiations. “This is the Russian president’s fault,” she said. Merkel also told Poroshenko that she would do everything to try to defuse the standoff between Ukraine and Russia, Poroshenko's office said after a phone call between the two leaders. Merkel also spoke to Putin on Nov. 26 and stressed the need for de-escalation and dialogue, her spokesman said. She is to meet Putin at the G20 on Nov. 30 and discuss the incident. At the same time, Merkel rebuffed Poroshenko's call for increasing military pressure on Russia. "We ask the Ukrainian side, too, to be sensible because we know that we can only solve things through being reasonable and through dialogue because there is no military solution to these disputes," Merkel said. (Reuters, 11.26.18, Reuters, 11.27.18, Reuters, 11.27.18, Financial Times, 11.29.18,  RFE/RL, 11.30.18, RFE/RL, 11.30.18)
      • European Council President Donald Tusk condemned the "Russian use of force" and tweeted that "Russian authorities must return Ukrainian sailors, vessels & refrain from further provocations," adding: "Europe will stay united in support of Ukraine." (RFE/RL, 11.26.18)
      • Senior officials from Germany, Russia, Ukraine and France met in Berlin on Nov. 26 to seek a common solution to renewed tensions between Moscow and Kiev. Russia and Ukraine must aim to scale back tensions in the wake of Russia's capture of three Ukrainian ships, said French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian on Nov. 27 after talks with his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov. Le Drian said he had asked Russia to make a gesture in releasing the Ukrainian boats and sailors. (Reuters, 11.26.18, Reuters, 11.27.18)
      • Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban said on Nov. 30 that Budapest stands by Ukraine in the latest escalation of tensions with Russia. (RFE/RL, 11.30.18)
      • NATO called an emergency meeting with Ukraine on Nov. 26, the alliance said. NATO head Jens Stoltenberg urged Russia on Nov. 26 to release the Ukrainian navy ships and sailors, saying there was no justification for Moscow's actions. NATO also called on "Russia to ensure unhindered access to Ukrainian ports in the Azov Sea, in accordance to international law.” However, NATO has reacted coolly to calls by Poroshenko for new measures to strengthen defenses and penalize Russia. A NATO spokeswoman said the alliance already has a strong presence in the region, with vessels routinely patrolling and exercising in the Black Sea. (RFE/RL, 11.30.18, Reuters, 11.26.18, Reuters, 11.26.18, The Moscow Times, 11.26.18)
      • G7 nations on Nov. 30 called Russia's seizure of three Ukrainian ships off Moscow-annexed Crimea unjustified and demanded the release of the 24 sailors, saying the standoff had "dangerously raised tensions." (AFP, 11.30.18)
  • Ukraine has formally scheduled a presidential election for March 31, 2019. A resolution setting the date was signed by parliament speaker Andriy Parubiy on Nov. 28. (RFE/RL, 11.28.18)
  • Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko has said changing the country's constitution to state Kiev’s aim of joining NATO and the EU as strategic state goals will send a strong "message" to Moscow that "we are parting completely and irrevocably." Addressing lawmakers in the Ukrainian parliament on Nov. 22, Poroshenko said Russia, "being an aggressor state," will not have a "veto" on whether Ukraine joins the two Western organizations. (RFE/RL, 11.23.18)
  • Ukraine has marked the 85th anniversary of the Stalin-era famine, known as the Holodomor, in which millions of people died of starvation. The anniversary was also marked by U.S. criticism of what Washington called "attempts" by Moscow "to destroy the identity and Western aspirations of the people of Ukraine." Moscow responded by rejecting critics who describe the Holodomor exclusively as an act of genocide against the Ukrainian people. (RFE/RL, 11.24.18)
  • Russia says it will not accept an international arbitration ruling obliging Moscow to pay Ukraine's biggest state-run bank, Oshchadbank, $1.3 billion in compensation for loss of business and assets in Crimea following Moscow's annexation of the peninsula in 2014. (RFE/RL, 11.27.18)
  • Ukraine’s central bank declared insolvent Kremlin-run lender VTB’s local subsidiary on Nov. 27, ending a long-running struggle over the Russian state’s role in the country after the annexation of Crimea. (Financial Times, 11.27.18)
  • Ukraine’s parliament has approved the government’s 2019 budget after a tense all-night session, a step that Kiev hopes will unlock $3.9 billion of IMF loans and help to stabilize the country as it approaches elections. (Financial Times, 11.23.18)
  • Ukraine's forex reserves since the start of November have grown by $1.063 billion to $17.8 billion, the National Bank of Ukraine has reported. (Interfax, 11.26.18)
  • Ukraine's intelligence service said its officers have searched the home of the father superior of Kiev's biggest and oldest monastery, which is part of the Russian Orthodox Church. Ihor Huskov, chief of staff of the SBU intelligence agency, told reporters on Nov. 30 that Metropolitan Pavlo, who oversees the Pechersk Lavra monastery, was suspected of "inciting hatred." (RFE/RL, 11.30.18)
  • Prosecutors are investigating three German Siemens employees based in St. Petersburg over allegations they violated EU embargo rules, the Hamburg public prosecutor’s office said. Siemens sold seven gas turbines to Russia in 2015 and 2016, but four of them were later installed in Russia-annexed Crimea, which is subject to sanctions from the EU. (Reuters, 11.29.18)
  • The president of the European Union's General Court has dismissed Andriy Klyuyev's attempt to have the bloc's sanctions against him suspended. Klyuyev was the head of the administration of former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych. His assets in the EU were frozen in 2014 after the collapse of the government amid pro-Western street protests. (RFE/RL, 11.29.18)

Russia’s other post-Soviet neighbors:

  • French-born former foreign minister Salome Zurabishvili has won a presidential runoff in Georgia, marking the last time Georgian citizens elected their head of state by popular vote. The Central Election Commission said that Zurabishvili had won nearly 60 percent of the vote, while her rival, Grigol Vashadze, polled just over 40 percent in the Nov. 28 ballot. (AP, 11.29.18)
  • The candidate on the losing side of the runoff in Georgia's presidential election has told supporters that he doesn't recognize the results. At a rally in Tbilisi on Nov. 29, Grigol Vashadze called for street protests and snap parliamentary elections after his opponent, Salome Zurabishvili, was declared the winner. (RFE/RL, 11.29.18)
  • A Georgian appeals court has upheld a ruling which sentenced former President Mikheil Saakashvili to prison for abuse of power over a 2005 incident. The Tbilisi City Court had sentenced Saakashvili in absentia in July to six years in prison on charges of ordering members of his special forces to beat up lawmaker Valery Gelashvili in central Tbilisi in 2005. (RFE/RL, 11.22.18)
  • Uzbekistan’s defense ministry announced on Nov. 26 the launch of large-scale military maneuvers across the country. (RFE/RL, 11.26.18)
  • Austria, the chief of the rotating EU presidency, says the "overall human rights situation” in Uzbekistan has shown improvement in the last two years. (RFE/RL, 11.23.18)
  • Tajikistan has asked Russia for an explanation after a Tajik man died while in the custody of Moscow police. The father of Ilkhomuddin Shoev, who died at a police station in the Russian capital on Nov. 21, told RFE/RL that his son appeared to have been badly beaten. (RFE/RL, 11.29.18)
  • A group of ethnic Kyrgyz originally from the northwestern Chinese region of Xinjiang have urged Kyrgyz President Sooronbai Jeenbekov to seek the release of their relatives from "reeducation camps" in China. (RFE/RL, 11.26.18)
  • Kyrgyz lawmakers have given preliminary approval to a bill that would eliminate immunity for ex-presidents, potentially opening the path for the prosecution of former leader Almazbek Atambaev. (RFE/RL, 11.27.18)
  • A vocal critic of Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev and his government, fugitive former banker Mukhtar Ablyazov, has been convicted in absentia on a murder charge and sentenced to life in prison. (RFE/RL, 11.27.18)
  • The high-profile trial of three Kazakh men charged with propagating terrorism was adjourned after two of the defendants cut themselves with sharp metal objects in the courtroom in the city of Almaty. (RFE/RL, 11.27.18)
  • The EU's special representative for Central Asia, Peter Burian, arrived in Bishkek on Nov. 29 to discuss with Kyrgyz officials ways to expand cooperation between the bloc and the Central Asian nation. (RFE/RL, 11.29.18)
  • Belarus has executed two convicted murderers, the human rights group Vyasna (Spring) said, prompting the EU to redouble its calls for President Alyaksandr Lukashenka's government to impose a moratorium on capital punishment. (RFE/RL, 11.28.18)

IV. Quoteworthy

  • No significant developments.
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