Russia in Review, Nov. 8-15, 2019
This Week’s Highlights:
- Trump says he’s weighing Putin’s invitation to attend the May 9 Victory Day parade in Moscow, but while he appreciates the invitation, the parade falls “right in the middle of political season,” so he’s not sure he can make it, the AP reports. Putin, however, still hopes Trump would come to Russia for the parade, according to RFE/RL.
- Russia landed attack helicopters and troops at an air base in northern Syria vacated by U.S. forces, the Russian Defense Ministry’s Zvezda TV channel said, Reuters reports.
- At the annual BRICS summit, Xi and Putin criticized politically motivated protectionism, RFE/RL reports. A statement issued by these and other BRICS leaders at the end of the summit commits the group to the Paris climate agreement and to Syria’s "territorial integrity," according to DW.
- In one of the recordings released by prosecutors investigating the downing of a Malaysian airliner in 2014, Alexander Borodai, the then-leader of the Donbas rebels, can be heard telling an unidentified person: "I'm carrying out orders and protecting the interests of one and only state, the Russian Federation. That's the bottom line," The Washington Post reports.
- Ukrainians’ favorite foreign leader is Alexander Lukashenko while Vladimir Putin is their least favorite. Some 66 percent of Ukrainians surveyed have a negative attitude toward Putin, while 71 percent have a positive attitude toward Lukashenko, according to a recent poll. The poll also showed more Ukrainians (42%) held a negative view of Donald Trump than a positive one (32%), according to Interfax and Censor.net.
- The Russian stock market has delivered the biggest returns to investors anywhere in the world in 2019, according to The Moscow Times. The MSCI Russia Index has soared by 44 since the beginning of the year, and the MSCI Emerging Markets Index, which includes Russian stocks and companies listed in 23 other developing economies such as China, Brazil, Mexico and India, has delivered returns of 12 percent in the same period.
- Russia has earned more money this year from the OPEC+ deal than Saudi Arabia, according to AP.
- According to Kommersant’s non-scientific poll of visitors to its website, as of the afternoon of Nov. 15, almost a third (31.19 percent) believe life in Russia most closely resembles the fairy tale “Tale of Cipollino” by Gianni Rodari. The second most popular choice was Nikolai Nosov’s “Dunno on the Moon” with around 17 percent of the 17,221 votes.
I. U.S. and Russian priorities for the bilateral agenda
Nuclear security and safety:
- No significant developments.
North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs:
- No significant developments.
Iran’s nuclear program and related issues:
- Iran has started construction of unit two of its nuclear power plant at Bushehr. A ceremony to mark the pouring of first concrete was held and was attended by the president of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, Ali Akbar Salehi, and executives from Rosatom. (World Nuclear News, 11.11.19)
New Cold War/saber rattling:
- No significant developments.
Military issues, including NATO-Russia relations:
- Turkey is willing to purchase U.S.-made Patriot air defense systems but will not agree to disposing of the Russian S-400 system it has already bought, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said after a meeting with U.S. President Donald Trump in Washington. (AP, 11.15.19)
- Threats from Russia are escalating, the U.K.’s Chief of the Defense Staff Nick Carter said, as new tools and weapons including disinformation and mercenaries could lead to miscalculations or even war. (Bloomberg, 11.11.19)
- Lithuania, Russia and Norway have carried out a three-way spy swap. (RFE/RL, 11.15.19)
- No significant developments.
Nuclear arms control:
- "If we involve China, then why only China? Let's involve France, and the United Kingdom and other countries, which, it seems, are not officially recognized as nuclear powers, but everybody in the world knows, even though they are not hiding it, that they are such," Russian President Vladimir Putin said of a revised INF Treaty. "As for how Mr. Xi Jinping views the signing of any agreements, naturally you would need to ask him directly. I know his point of view, I discussed it with him," Putin said at the BRICS summit. (BBC Monitoring, 11.15.19)
- The chief of Russia’s FSB has warned that adult Islamic State fighters should undergo close vetting by the countries where they’re being held as well as by Russia before being cleared for repatriation. “The children are a different matter,” Alexander Bortnikov said. Russia has taken DNA samples from 49 orphans in Syria to confirm their relations to Russian citizens and clear their return home. (RFE/RL, 11.14.19)
- Russian intelligence agencies have full information about Russian citizens who fought alongside terrorists in Syria and share information on militants from Central Asian nations who fight in Syria with the competent agencies in those countries, a diplomatic source said. (TASS, 11.12.19)
Conflict in Syria:
- Russia landed attack helicopters and troops at a sprawling air base in northern Syria vacated by U.S. forces, the Russian Defense Ministry’s Zvezda TV channel said Nov. 15. On Nov. 14, Zvezda said Russia had set up a helicopter base at an airport in the Syrian city of Qamishli. As many as 600 U.S. troops will remain in northeastern Syria to continue counterterrorism operations against the Islamic State, Army Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said. (The Washington Post, 11.11.19, Reuters, 11.15.19)
- The Russian military police conducted four patrol missions in northern Syria, one of them jointly with Turkish border guards in the governorate of Aleppo, Russian Gen. Yuri Borenkov said. (TASS, 11.12.19)
- A defense industry source told Russian news outlet Izvestia last month that the S-500 recently underwent field testing in Syria. (The National Interest, 11.11.19)
- Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s extended family and associates own $40 million worth of luxury apartments in Moscow’s skyscraper district, according to the anti-corruption campaign group Global Witness. (The Moscow Times, 11.10.19)
- Russia has been by far the most prolific, demanding the removal of about 255,000 links from Google search last year, three-quarters of all government requests for removal from Google search in that period. (Wall Street Journal, 11.15.19)
- One of the Wex online exchange platform’s co-founders told BBC he was forced to hand over information about customers’ digital wallets to individuals from Russia’s FSB in 2018. That information would enable them to seize the cryptocurrency which customers had saved on the platform—worth a total of around $450 million at the time. (BBC/The Moscow Times, 11.15.19)
- Fiona Hill, who served as the White House’s top adviser on Russia affairs until July, told lawmakers in October that she believed Russians likely planted disinformation about U.S. President Donald Trump with dossier author Christopher Steele, whose eagerness to obtain work made him vulnerable to Russian disinformation. Hill, who was deposed in the impeachment inquiry on Oct. 14, said she was “shocked” to find out that Steele, a former MI6 officer, was the author. (The National Interest, 11.13.19)
- Roger Stone, a former aide and longtime friend of U.S. President Donald Trump, was found guilty Nov. 15 of obstructing a congressional investigation into Russia’s interference in the 2016 election in what prosecutors said was an effort to protect Trump. (New York Times, 11.15.19)
- Russians appeared suddenly last year in Madagascar’s traffic-snarled capital, carrying backpacks stuffed with cash and campaign swag decorated with the name of Madagascar’s president. Working from their headquarters in a resort hotel, the Russians published their own newspaper in the local language and hired students to write fawning articles about the president to help him win another term. (New York Times, 11.12.19)
- Conservation authorities in New Zealand announced this weekend that the hoiho, or yellow-eyed penguin, had won the country's coveted "Bird of the Year." But organizers have been forced to defend the integrity of the competition after speculation about the number of voters from Russia led to rumors about possible interference. (The Washington Post, 11.12.19)
- Russia has earned more money this year from the OPEC+ deal than Saudi Arabia. Russia will continue working together with OPEC to stabilize the oil market not only through output regulation but also in other spheres as well, Russian President Vladimir Putin said. (AP, 11.15.19, Asharq Al-Awsat, 11.15.19)
- Germany’s parliament this week approved changes to a law, making Nord Stream 2’s passage under the Baltic Sea compliant with EU regulations, removing a key hurdle for the project’s completion. (Reuters, 11.15.19)
- Poland’s state gas company said Nov. 15 it will stop importing natural gas from Russia’s Gazprom when a long-term contract expires in three years, unless it can secure better commercial terms. (AP, 11.15.19)
Bilateral economic ties:
- No significant developments.
Other bilateral issues:
- U.S. President Donald Trump says he’s weighing an invitation from Russian President Vladimir Putin to attend the May 9 Victory Day parade in Moscow. Trump tells reporters he appreciates the invitation from Putin, but the parade falls “right in the middle of political season,” so he’s not sure he can make it. He adds: “I would love to go if I could.” Putin then said he currently has no plans to meet Trump, but that he hoped the U.S. president would come to Russia for the parade. (AP, 11.09.19, RFE/RL, 11.14.19)
- The U.S. State Department has called on Russia to release all jailed Jehovah's Witnesses in the country, saying "they pose no threat" and that Russian authorities should "respect their right to worship in peace." (RFE/RL, 11.08.19)
- The Russian Embassy in Washington says it has lodged a formal diplomatic protest after Israel extradited Russian national Aleksei Burkov to the U.S., where he is suspected of stealing more than $20 million from U.S. consumers through credit card fraud. (RFE/RL, 11.13.19)
II. Russia’s domestic news
Politics, economy and energy:
- The Russian stock market has delivered the biggest returns to investors anywhere in the world in 2019. Since the start of the year, the MSCI Russia Index, a tracker which follows the 23 largest Russian publicly-listed companies, has soared by 44. Over the same period, the MSCI Emerging Markets Index, which includes Russian stocks and companies listed in 23 other developing economies such as China, Brazil, Mexico and India, has delivered returns of 12 percent. (The Moscow Times, 11.13.19)
- Russia’s State Statistics Service published preliminary GDP estimates for the third quarter of 2019 that posted a 1.7 percent year-on-year growth in the quarter, up from 0.9 percent year on year in the second quarter and only 0.5 percent in the first quarter. The growth for the whole of the first nine months of this year was 1.1 percent year on year, which is almost half what the government was predicting at the start of 2019. (bne IntelliNews, 11.14.19)
- Russia wants to reduce the dollar’s share of its $125 billion sovereign wealth fund as part of a Kremlin plan to “de-dollarize” the economy and shift towards the euro and the renminbi. Vladimir Kolychev, Russia’s deputy finance minister, told reporters on Nov. 13 that Moscow wanted to cut the National Wealth Fund’s $45 billion holdings to mirror an earlier move by the central bank away from the greenback. (Financial Times, 11.13.19)
- More than 30,000 people have been found guilty of violating Russian protest law over the past 15 years, according to a study by the independent OVD-Info police-monitoring group. (The Moscow Times, 11.08.19)
- Investigators say the high-profile drug-trafficking case against Russian journalist Ivan Golunov, who was wrongly arrested and released amid a public outcry in June, has been marked classified, dealing a blow to his pursuit of finding out why he was detained. (RFE/RL, 11.11.19)
- Russian lawmakers are considering a proposal that would designate reporters who work for organizations officially listed as foreign agents as foreign agents themselves. (RFE/RL, 11.13.19)
- The Anti-Corruption Foundation says it has found documentation showing luxury properties worth more than 3.5 million euros belonging to the family of Moscow State Prosecutor Denis Popov, raising questions over how such valuable real estate purchases were funded. (RFE/RL, 11.13.19)
- The Russian Academy of Sciences has urged the Ministry of Education to cancel its order barring scientists and scholars from communicating with foreigners. (RFE/RL, 11.15.19)
- Moscow drivers have the second-highest level of road rage in the world, according to Mister Aut index, which ranked 100 international cities. (The Moscow Times, 11.13.19)
- According to Kommersant’s non-scientific poll of visitors to its website, as of the afternoon of Nov. 15, almost a third (31.19 percent) believe life in Russia most closely resembles the fairy tale “Tale of Cipollino” by Gianni Rodari. The second most popular choice of the 17,221 responses was Nikolai Nosov’s “Dunno on the Moon” with around 17 percent of the votes. (Russia Matters, 11.15.19)
Defense and aerospace:
- Russia’s armed forces will soon welcome some new recruits when the Northern Fleet's Arctic brigade launches a new Siberian husky squad. (The Moscow Times, 11.13.19)
Security, law-enforcement and justice:
- A plane crash that killed all 50 people on board at Russia's Kazan Airport in 2013 was the result of errors made by two pilots, including one who got his license using falsified documents, a Russian investigative committee said on Nov. 14. The aircraft's commander, Rustem Salikhov, “having no basic knowledge, skills and experience as a pilot, began to carry out passenger air flights as a pilot," the committee said. (The Moscow Times, 11.14.19)
- St. Petersburg State University has launched a center to study domestic violence in the country after one of its professors, Oleg Sokolov, killed and dismembered his girlfriend Anastasia Yeshchenko. There were more than 33,000 cases of domestic violence reported in Russia last year. (RFE/RL, 11.14.19)
- One person was killed and three wounded on Nov. 14 when a student opened fire at a college in the Amur region's capital city of Blagoveshchensk in Russia's Far East. (RFE/RL, 11.14.19)
- The leadership of Russia's Federal Penitentiary Service in the southwestern region of Rostov has been detained on suspicion of corruption and "revealing state secrets." (RFE/RL, 11.13.19)
III. Foreign affairs, trade and investment
Russia’s general foreign policy and relations with “far abroad” countries:
- The annual BRICS summit in Brazil on Nov. 13 saw Chinese President Xi Jinping and Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin criticize politically motivated protectionism at a time of a global slowdown. The leaders of Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa also called for increased trade between the countries. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi used the platform to announce his country's plans to be a $5 trillion (€4.55 trillion) economy by 2024, up from $2.6 trillion in 2018. Their statement, issued on the second day of the summit, also commits to the Paris climate agreement and to Syria’s "territorial integrity." (RFE/RL, 11.14.19, DW, 11.14.19)
- Russia plans to deliver S-400 surface-to-air missile systems to India on schedule, Russian President Vladimir Putin has said amidst warnings from the U.S. against the multi-billion deal. (Press Trust of India, 11.15.19)
- The U.S. has warned Egypt that it could face sanctions over a $2 billion contract to buy more than 20 Su-35 fighter jets from Russia. (Wall Street Journal/The Moscow Times, 11.15.19)
- Russia has recognized violence-plagued Bolivia’s interim president Jeanine Añez until the South American nation’s next elections. (RFE/RL, 11.14.19)
- Russia is using private military contractors to escalate the conflict in Libya and boost its influence there, the security chief of Libya’s U.N.-backed government has said. (The Moscow Times, 11.10.19)
- Russian President Vladimir Putin has snubbed repeated requests from Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu to free Naama Issachar, a 26-year-old army veteran sentenced to 7 1/2 years in jail for carrying a small amount of hashish in a Moscow airport during a layover in April. (Bloomberg, 11.11.19)
- Nine Russian businesspeople have donated to Britain’s Conservative Party, according to a secret parliamentary report on Russian interference in British elections, The Sunday Times reported. (The Moscow Times, 11.11.19)
- Russia plans to ask Latvia to extradite Russian journalist Alexander Shvarev to face charges of slandering oligarch Alisher Usmanov. (The Moscow Times, 11.08.19)
- “The President and I together declared the development of Chinese-Russian relations in a comprehensive strategic partnership,” Chinese President Xi Jinping said during his meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin at the BRICS summit. In his turn, Putin described Xi Jinping as “my friend” during their meeting at the BRICS summit, saying: “This is truly a comprehensive partnership.” (China.org.cn, 11.14.19, Kremlin.ru, 11.13.19)
- The leaders of Russia, Ukraine, Germany and France will meet in Paris on Dec. 9 to try to seek a settlement for the five-year conflict in eastern Ukraine. Earlier Kyiv and Russia-backed separatists said they have completed a pullback of troops and weapons from a third frontline area in eastern Ukraine. The move was meant to pave way for the summit. (AP, 11.15.19, RFE/RL, 11.11.19)
- Kazakhstan’s ex-president said Nov. 12 he offered to host the leaders of Russia and Ukraine for talks on settling the conflict in eastern Ukraine, but the Kremlin was noncommittal about such an encounter. (AP, 11.12.19)
- Senior Kremlin officials were directly involved in the day-to-day affairs of rebels in eastern Ukraine as the conflict there worsened in 2014, prosecutors investigating the downing of a Malaysian airliner that year said. In a call on July 3, 2014, Kremlin aide and Russia's point person on eastern Ukraine Vladislav Surkov told Alexander Borodai, the then-leader of the Donbas rebels, that Russian fighters "were departing for the south to be combat-ready." (The Washington Post, 11.14.19)
- Some 71 percent of Ukrainians surveyed have a negative attitude towards Russian President Vladimir Putin, according to a survey conducted by the Rating Sociological Group. According to the study, Ukrainians hold Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko (66 percent positively and 15 percent negatively) in the highest regard. In second place, Ukrainians put German Chancellor Angela Merkel (60 percent positive, 17 percent negative). Some 32 percent of the Ukrainians held a positive view of U.S. President Donald Trump, while 42% held a negative view. (Interfax, 11.12.19, Censor.net, 11.11.19)
- The White House released a rough transcript of U.S. President Donald Trump's first phone call with his Ukrainian counterpart as Nov. 15's impeachment hearing was getting underway. The congratulatory conversation contained few of the problematic requests that a later July phone call did. But it did show Trump eager to engage Volodymyr Zelenskiy. (CNN, 11.15.19)
- House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said U.S. President Donald Trump's alleged decision to withhold military aid to Ukraine in exchange for investigations of Joe Biden and the 2016 U.S. election amounted to bribery, using a term specifically mentioned in the Constitution as an impeachable offense. (Wall Street Journal, 11.14.19)
- The first day of public impeachment hearings saw William B. Taylor Jr., the acting ambassador to Ukraine, testify about a previously undisclosed July 26 phone call between U.S. President Donald Trump and Gordon Sondland, the U.S. ambassador to the EU. Sondland’s cellphone call to Trump from a restaurant in Kyiv was a stunning breach of security, exposing the conversation to surveillance by foreign intelligence services, including Russia's, former U.S. officials said. The call—in which Trump's remarks were overheard by a U.S. Embassy staffer in Kyiv—was disclosed by Taylor. "The member of my staff could hear President Trump on the phone" asking Sondland about "the investigations," Taylor testified. (The Washington Post, 11.14.19)
- Catherine Croft, a Ukraine specialist at the U.S. State Department, told House impeachment investigators that Ukrainian leaders were aware nearly $400 million in congressionally approved security assistance had been frozen well before that information became public, undercutting a key point of U.S. President Donald Trump's “no quid pro quo” defense. (The Washington Post, 11.12.19)
- Former U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch said Nov. 15 U.S. President Donald Trump was persuaded to fire her after hearing false allegations from suspect sources. She also delivered an indictment of “the failure of State Department leadership to push back as foreign and corrupt interests apparently hijacked our Ukraine policy.” (RFE/RL, 11.15.19, The Guardian, 11.15.19)
- On Sept. 1, an anxious Volodymyr Zelenskiy asked U.S. Vice President Mike Pence about the U.S. security assistance money during an event in Warsaw. Pence said only that he would raise it with U.S. President Donald Trump. But Gordon Sondland, the U.S. ambassador to the EU, who also was at the event, took one of Zelenskiy’s aides aside to deliver an explicit message: The Ukrainians should not expect the money if Zelenskiy did not publicly announce the investigations. (New York Times, 11.11.19)
- Ukraine’s Prosecutor-General Ruslan Ryaboshapka says Kostyantyn Kulyk, the prosecutor who led investigations into a local natural-gas company where Joe Biden’s son served on the board, will be fired. (RFE/RL, 11.14.19)
- Ukraine should give up on the West and go back into Russia’s fold, influential Ukrainian billionaire Ihor Kolomoisky said in an interview with The New York Times on Nov. 13. “You all won’t take us [into NATO and the EU],” he said. The U.S. uses Ukraine to wage] War against Russia ... to the last Ukrainian,” he claimed. “They’re stronger anyway. We have to improve our relations,” he said of Russia and Ukraine. (The Moscow Times, 11.13.19)
- Ukraine’s parliament has passed a bill in its first reading to remove a ban on the sale of farmland, a move supported by the country's foreign backers. (RFE/RL, 11.13.19)
- Ukraine is on course to smash its 2019 grain harvest record and remain the world’s biggest grain exporter. (bne Intellinews, 11.13.19)
- 50,000 Ukrainian citizens have relocated to Crimea since 2014, Kommersant reported, citing the local parliament. (Russia Matters, 11.13.19)
- Vladyslav Dobosh, lawyer for the suspected planner of the killing of former Russian State Duma Deputy Denis Voronenkov, has been killed while hunting. (RFE/RL, 11.11.19)
Russia’s other post-Soviet neighbors:
- Moldova's parliament has approved a new government led by former a finance minister and presidential adviser, Ion Chicu. President Igor Dodon nominated Chicu on Nov. 13, a day after pro-Western Prime Minister Maia Sandu's cabinet lost a confidence vote after just five months in office, threatening more instability in one of Europe's poorest and most corrupt countries. (RFE/RL, 11.14.19)
- Belarussian President Alexander Lukashenko has criticized Russia for making it pay for combat aircraft deliveries and threatened to revise a key border control pact. Belarus on Nov. 13 received two of the 12 Russian Su-30SM fighter jets it ordered in 2017. Belarus’ security chief said they had paid full price for the aircraft rather than accept Russia’s offer to provide them for free in exchange for permission to deploy an air base in Belarus. (The Moscow Times, 11.15.19)
- On a visit to Austria, Belarussian President Alexander Lukashenko defended Belarus’s human rights record, as he called for closer relations with the EU. It was his first trip to an EU member state since his Italy visit more than three years ago. (RFE/RL, 11.12.19)
- Kyrgyzstan's consul-general in Istanbul, Erkin Sopokov, has been sacked two days after a businessman from China's Xinjiang Province was shot dead in Turkey's largest city. On Nov. 10, Aierken Saimait (aka Ayerken Saymaiti), an ethnic Uyghur from Xinjiang, whose name was cited in an investigative report by RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service about the illegal withdrawal of some $700 million from Kyrgyzstan, was shot dead in Istanbul. (RFE/RL, 11.12.19)
- Thousands of people are protesting in the center of the Georgian capital to vent their anger over the parliament’s rejection of an electoral reform that was demanded by protesters this summer. The constitutional amendment on the transition to a proportional electoral system was rejected in its first reading on Nov. 14 as the number of supporting votes failed to reach the required minimum of 113. (RFE/RL, 11.14.19)
- Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov says Russia and Armenia have finalized talks on cooperation in biological security. Russia long has pushed for access to three biological labs in Armenia, which have been sponsored by the U.S. (AP, 11.11.19)
- Armenian authorities say they have launched a criminal investigation into "numerous" cases of foreigners illegally adopting Armenian children. (RFE/RL, 11.14.19)
- In one of the recordings released by prosecutors investigating the downing of a Malaysian airliner in 2014, Alexander Borodai, the then-leader of the Donbas rebels, can be heard telling an unidentified person: "I'm carrying out orders and protecting the interests of one and only state, the Russian Federation. That's the bottom line." (The Washington Post, 11.14.19)