Russia in Review, Sept. 11-18, 2020

This Week’s Highlights

  • The Trump administration threatened Sept. 16 to impose fresh sanctions to deter China and Russia from selling weapons to Iran after an arms embargo on Iran expires next month, the Wall Street Journal reports. The administration’s stance has been viewed skeptically by some former government sanctions officials who say that China and Russia are likely to refrain from shipping arms to Iran as they wait to see whether U.S. President Donald Trump is re-elected, and that some of the new U.S. sanctions may be duplicative.
  • Christopher Wray, director of the FBI, warned a House committee on Sept. 17 that Russia is actively pursuing a disinformation campaign against Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden, the New York Times reports. Biden warned Russian President Vladimir Putin that Russia would pay an “economic price” for continuing to interfere in U.S. elections if he wins the White House, according to the Financial Times.
  • The share of Russians with a good or very good attitude toward the U.S. remained steady at 42 percent from January to August 2020, as did the share of Russians who have a bad or very bad attitude toward the U.S. (46 percent), according to the Levada Center’s latest report on the results of its recent opinion polls asking Russians about their attitudes toward other countries. At the same time, the share of Russians who view the U.S. as the most hostile country to Russia declined from 67 percent in 2019 to 60 percent in 2020. 
  • The OPCW is expected to release in the coming days the results of its own analysis of biomedical samples collected from Russian opposition figure Alexei Navalny by its team of experts. If those results confirm the German, French and Swedish findings, the German government would move quickly to impose financial sanctions on Russia through EU, the New York Times reports. French President Emmanuel Macron had told Putin in a phone call that France’s own analysis had concluded that Navalany had been poisoned by Novichok and reiterated his “full solidarity with Germany on the steps to be taken,” according to the Financial Times.
  • “China has a vast population, its resources, its vast dynamism of its economy," U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper said at an event organized by RAND, "very different from Russia in terms of demographics." "We see Russia as a challenge right now, but in the future, less so," Esper said according to U.S. News. 
  • For the first time this year, less than 50 percent of the trade between China and Russia was denominated in the U.S. dollar, CTGN reports.
  • Belarus will close its borders with Poland and Lithuania and step up security measures at the Ukrainian frontier, Belarusian leader Alexander Lukashenko said, calling on the people of Poland and Lithuania to “stop your crazy politicians,” whom he warned are spoiling for war, according to The Moscow Times. When hosting Lukashenko in Sochi on Sept. 14, Putin offered a $1.5 billion loan and promised to hold joint military exercises with Belarus “practically every month” for the next year,” the Financial Times reports. However, Putin also urged dialogue with Lukashenko’s opponents. Meanwhile, the European Union’s top diplomat has said that the bloc does not recognize Lukashenko as the legitimate president of Belarus, according to RFE/RL.

 

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

Nuclear security and safety:

  • Next week, Lisa E. Gordon Hagerty, NNSA Administrator and Under Secretary for Nuclear Security of the U.S. Department of Energy, will travel to Vienna to represent the U.S. at the 64th General Conference of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). Hagerty will be joined by Christopher Ashley Ford, Assistant Secretary of State for International Security and Nonproliferation. (U.S. Department of Energy, 09.17.20)
  • Russia’s Strategic Missile Force continues receiving advanced engineer hardware, including MIOM engineer support and camouflaging vehicles, to enhance maneuverability and survivability of mobile missile systems, the Russian Defense Ministry’s press office said. (TASS, 09.18.20)

North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs:

  • North Korea likely paid Russian cybercriminals for their help hacking into banks and other corporate networks to steal money and data, security experts revealed in a report published on Sept. 16. Working with hackers linked to Russia could allow DPRK-linked groups to focus their efforts on more important tasks, according to researchers at security firm Intel 471. (NK News, 09.17.20)
  • Russia has delivered 25,000 tons of wheat in humanitarian assistance to North Korea, the Russian mission in Pyongyang has said, as the impoverished country struggles to recover from damage caused by recent back-to-back typhoons. (Yonhap, 09.13.20)
  • North Korea’s July exports to Russia hit an all-year high. Accordions and their accessories made up more than 60 percent of July’s $246,000 export value. (NK News, 09.17.20)
  • A court in Far East Russia has jailed a second North Korean poacher for attacking Russian border guards at sea last year. The court in the city of Nakhodka 6,500 kilometers east of Moscow found the North Korean citizen guilty and sentenced him to seven years in prison. (The Moscow Times, 09.18.20)

Iran and its nuclear program:

  • The Trump administration threatened Sept. 16 to impose an array of fresh sanctions to deter China and Russia from selling weapons to Iran after an arms embargo on Washington’s Middle East foe expires next month. The administration’s stance has been viewed skeptically by some former government sanctions officials who say that China and Russia are likely to refrain from shipping arms to Iran as they wait to see whether U.S. President Donald Trump is re-elected, and that some of the new U.S. sanctions may be duplicative. (Wall Street Journal, 09.16.20)
  • U.S. Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden has said that he is “ready to walk the path of diplomacy” with Tehran “if Iran takes steps to show it is ready too.” “If Iran returns to strict compliance with the nuclear deal, the United States would rejoin the agreement as a starting point for follow-on negotiations,” he wrote in an op-ed. “Five years ago, even Russia and China stood with our European allies behind an American-led approach to Iran's nuclear program,” he wrote. (bne Intellinews, 09.15.20, CNN, 09.13.20)
  • In his meeting with the Iranian ambassador to Moscow, Special Representative of the President of Russia on SCO Affairs Bakhtiyar Khakimov announced Moscow's support for Iran's permanent membership in the organization. (MNA, 09.16.20)

New Cold War/saber rattling:

  • U.S. Secretary of Defense Mark Esper on Sept. 16 dismissed Russia as unable to present persistent dangers to the U.S., marking a notable shift in the Pentagon's view of the global threats for which it must prepare. "China has a vast population, its resources, its vast dynamism of its economy," Esper said at an event organized by the RAND Corporation, "very different from Russia in terms of demographics." "We see Russia as a challenge right now, but in the future, less so." (U.S. News, 09.16.20)
  • Esper said the Defense Department also opposes the House's energy and water appropriations bill, which provides $18 billion for the NNSA, rather than the $20 billion the Trump administration requested. Esper said the cut would do "grave harm" to the U.S. nuclear deterrent. (Inside Defense, 09.17.20)
  • Russian-made weapons outclass foreign models and have no analogues in the world in terms of some of their characteristics, Russian President Vladimir Putin said on Sept. 18 at a meeting of the military industry commission. (TASS, 09.18.20)
  • The U.K.’s defense secretary has admitted Britain’s military is racing to catch up with its adversaries’ successes in technological warfare, as he warned: “our enemies have studied our vulnerabilities and adapted far more quickly than us.” (Financial Times, 09.14.20)

NATO-Russia relations:

  • Biden considers Russia an opponent, not an enemy, he said at an event hosted by CNN in Pennsylvania. Answering whether he considered Russia an enemy, Biden responded: "I believe Russia is an opponent. I really do." He added: "Putin’s overwhelming objective is to break up NATO, to fundamentally alter the circumstance in Europe so he doesn’t have to face an entire NATO contingent." (TASS, 09.18.20)
  • Moscow has repeatedly called on the United States and NATO to discuss ways to prevent military incidents, Chief of the Main Operations Directorate of Russia’s General Staff Sergei Rudskoi said. (TASS, 09.18.20)

Missile defense:

  • Romania's armed forces received their first shipment of U.S. Patriot surface-to-air missiles on Sept. 17, part of efforts to upgrade the country's military capabilities. (AP, 09.17.20)

Nuclear arms control:

  • No significant developments.

Counter-terrorism:

  • A senior Russian diplomat has claimed that the U.S. has suspended a Track 1 dialogue with Russia on counter-terrorism. Deputy Foreign Minister and former deputy director of the FSB Oleg Syromolotov told Interfax that Russia and the U.S. held two rounds of talks on counter-terrorism in 2018-2019, but then this dialogue was suspended by Washington. (Russia Matters, 09.17.20)

Conflict in Syria:

  • U.N. Special Envoy for Syria Geir Pedersen on Sept. 18 called on Russia and the United States to advance their dialogue toward a political settlement in Syria. (UrduPoint News, 09.18.20)
  • "There is no doubt that Moscow can contribute strongly to the search for a political solution with its influence on the regime in Damascus," Syrian Democratic Council co-chair Riad Darar said. "The Russian role is as influential as the American role, so we are counting on them to reach understandings that stop the crisis and end the war." (Newsweek, 09.17.20)
  • Russian forces increasingly face rejection by the Kurds in northeast Syria as they attempt to expand their military presence in that part of the war-torn country, local sources and experts said. A Russian military convoy recently arrived in a village near Syria’s border with Turkey where Russian officers reportedly expressed their desire to set up a military outpost in the area. Osman Khalil, a local leader at the Sarmsakh village in northeast Syria, said, “A Russian commander told us they wanted to build an outpost in the village for our protection. We simply told them that we didn’t want their protection and that we didn’t trust the Russians.” (VOA, 09.10.20)
  • Sergeant of the Guards Mikhail Milshin, who was seriously injured in a roadside bomb blast in Syria on Aug. 18, died in a Moscow hospital. (TASS, 09.13.20)
  • Fifteen Russian children were repatriated from Syria on Sept. 9 and Russia has handed over a list of more than 70 children who might be repatriated in the near future to representatives of Syria's al-Hawl and al-Roj camps. (Interfax, 09.09.20)

Cyber security:

  • China, Russia and Iran have rejected accusations by software giant Microsoft that hackers from their countries are targeting U.S. presidential campaigns ahead of the November elections. (AP, 09.12.20)

Elections interference:

  • Christopher Wray, the director of the FBI, warned a House committee on Sept. 17 that Russia is actively pursuing a disinformation campaign against Biden, and expressed alarm about violent extremist groups. ''Racially motivated violent extremism,'' mostly from white supremacists, has made up a majority of domestic terrorism threats, Wray told the House Homeland Security Committee. He also echoed an intelligence community assessment last month that Russia is conducting a ''very active'' campaign to spread disinformation and interfere in the presidential election, with Biden as the primary target. (New York Times, 09.18.20)     
  • Biden warned Putin that Russia would pay an “economic price” for continuing to interfere in U.S. elections if he wins the White House in November. Speaking at a CNN town hall on Sept. 17, Biden said Russia would be punished for once again meddling in U.S. democracy, four years after Putin orchestrated a campaign to interfere with the 2016 election. (Financial Times, 09.17.20)
  • The Trump administration’s top intelligence official will brief the congressional intelligence committees in person on threats to the November election, officials said, after moving last month to curtail updates to lawmakers about threats to the 2020 contest. Director of National Intelligence John Ratcliffe agreed to give both the House and Senate intelligence committees those briefings during a meeting Sept. 16 with congressional leaders. (Wall Street Journal, 09.16.20)
  • Dan Coats, Trump’s former director of national intelligence, called on Congress on Sept. 17 to create a nonpartisan panel to reassure Americans that the results of the election are legitimate. In a New York Times op-ed, Coats wrote that the panel was needed to “save our democracy.” (New York Times, 09.17.20)
  • A federal prosecutor who was helping lead the investigation into the origins of the Trump-Russia probe has resigned from the Justice Department, a spokesman said. Nora Dannehy was a top prosecutor on a team led by U.S. Attorney John Durham of Connecticut, who was appointed last year to lead an investigation into how the FBI and other federal agencies set out to investigate Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election and whether the Trump campaign had coordinated with the Kremlin. (AP, 09.12.20)

Energy exports from CIS:

  • Germany offered to spend up to 1 billion euros to subsidize the construction of two liquid natural gas terminals capable of receiving U.S. gas exports in exchange for Washington dropping its opposition to the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline. The proposal was formulated last month by German Finance Minister Olaf Scholz in a letter to U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin. In the Aug. 7 letter Scholz said Germany would increase its financial support for LNG infrastructure and import capacities “by up to €1bn” in exchange for the U.S. “allow[ing] for the unhindered construction and operation of Nord Stream 2.” (Financial Times, 09.16.20)
    • The Kremlin said Sept. 16 that there should be no connection between Nord Stream 2 and the case of opposition leader Aleksei Navalny, who Berlin says was poisoned in Russia with a nerve agent. (RFE/RL, 09.16.20)
    • Austria has said it still supports Nord Stream 2, despite growing reservations about the project in parts of Europe following the poisoning of Navalny. (RFE/RL, 09.15.20)
    • “It’s been one of those bizarre pipelines,” James Henderson, head of the natural gas program at the Oxford Institute for Energy Studies, said on Nord Stream 2. “Many people have said, why build this thing? What’s the economic case for Nord Stream 2, it’s surplus capacity? If tomorrow you said Nord Stream 2 is not happening, I’m not sure many traders would bat an eyelid.” (Financial Times, 09.14.20)
  • The EU’s top court has upheld restrictive measures adopted by the 27-nation bloc against Russian oil and gas companies in connection with Moscow’s actions in Ukraine. The Luxembourg-based Court of Justice announced Sept. 17 that it had upheld a judgment by a lower EU court dismissing an action against the sanctions slapped on companies that are part of state oil giant Rosneft, saying the measures "have been duly justified and are suitable for putting pressure on Russia because of its role" in the Ukraine crisis. (RFE/RL, 09.17.20)

U.S.-Russian economic ties:

  • No significant developments.

U.S.-Russian relations in general:

  • The share of Russians with a good or very good attitude toward the U.S. remained steady at 42 percent from January to August 2020, as did the share of Russians who have a bad or very bad attitude toward the U.S. (46 percent), according to the Levada Center’s latest report on the results of its recent opinion polls asking Russians about their attitudes toward other countries. At the same time, the share of Russians who view the U.S. as the most hostile country to Russia declined from 67 percent in 2019 to 60 percent in 2020. (Russia Matters, 09.17.20)
  • Pew’s latest poll of America’s allies show they have greater confidence in Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping than in Trump. Ratings of Putin and Xi were unfavorable in more than a dozen Western and Asian countries polled (a median confidence of 23 percent and 19 percent respectively), although not as unfavorable as those of Trump (a median of 16 percent), according to the Pew Research Center’s latest report. (Russia Matters, 09.17.20)
  • Putin will record his address for the high-level week of the U.N. General Assembly’s 75th session on Sept. 18, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters. The address is to be aired on Sept. 22. The Russian delegation to the UNGA will be led by Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. Trump will not be present in person at the September session of the U.N. General Assembly, according to the White House. (TASS, 09.18.20, Russia Matters, 09.18.20)
  • A retired federal judge accused the Justice Department on Sept. 11 of yielding to a pressure campaign led by Trump in its bid to dismiss the prosecution of former national security adviser Michael Flynn for lying to federal investigators. In a 30-page court filing in Washington, former New York federal judge John Gleeson called Attorney General William Barr's request to drop Flynn's case a "corrupt and politically motivated favor unworthy of our justice system." (The Washington Post, 09.12.20)
  • A campaign fundraising ad for Trump aimed at rallying support for the country’s troops actually displays Russian-made military equipment, Politico reported Sept. 14. (The Moscow Times, 09.15.20)

 

II. Russia’s domestic policies

Domestic politics, economy and energy:

  • Russia confirmed 5,905 new coronavirus infections Sept. 18, bringing the country’s official number of cases to 1,091,186. (The Moscow Times, 09.18.20) 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.
  • Russia will sell 100 million doses of its Sputnik V coronavirus vaccine to India once final trials and regulatory steps are completed, the Russian sovereign fund that is bankrolling the project announced Sept. 16. (The Moscow Times, 09.18.20)
  • One in seven volunteers have complained of side effects including weakness and muscle pain after taking Russia’s highly touted coronavirus vaccine, Russia’s health minister said Sept. 15. (The Moscow Times, 09.15.20)
  • Nearly half of Russians say they will never vaccinate against the coronavirus regardless of its country of production, according to a survey cited by the RBC news website Sept. 11. (The Moscow Times, 09.11.20)
  • Two Russian-made coronavirus treatment drugs have been cleared for pharmacy sale, allowing for widespread at-home treatment of the infection. Both drugs are Russia-manufactured variants of favipiravir, the generic version of an anti-flu medication developed by Japan’s Fujifilm. (The Moscow Times, 09.18.20)
  • Putin’s United Russia party swept all the country’s 18 gubernatorial races in elections that closed on Sept. 13, with Kremlin-backed candidates winning 13 of the posts with more than 70 percent of the vote. Seven Kremlin-backed governors won more than 80 percent of the vote in their regions. Alexei Navalny’s organization’s “smart voting” initiative encouraged voters across the country to back candidates with the best chance of unseating United Russia lawmakers. That initiative appeared to have worked in Tomsk where Navalny was campaigning. In a rare defeat for the ruling party, United Russia was set to win just 11 seats in the city’s 37-strong chamber, down from 21 out of 35 at the previous election. Similarly in Novosibirsk, Russia’s third-largest city, preliminary results indicated that United Russia would win 22 seats in the 50-seat chamber, down from 33. Two associates of Navalny were set to win seats. In Tambov, 450 kilometers south of Moscow, opposition parties also won a majority in the city’s parliament.(Financial Times, 09.12.20)
    • Early votes accounted for more than 50 percent of ballots cast during the regional elections, raising concerns of vote rigging. The contests included four single-seat State Duma constituencies, 18 gubernatorial races, 11 regional parliament elections, city council votes in 22 regional capitals and competitions for city government offices in 33 other cities. (bne Intellinews, 09.15.20)
  • The Russian federal government approved the Finance Ministry’s proposal for Russia’s 2021-23 budget on Sept. 16, which has been amended to adjust for the effects of coronavirus. The document foresees a 4.4 percent GDP deficit in 2021, 2.4 percent in 2022 and 1 percent thereafter. (bne Intellinews, 09.18.20)
  • In August, Russian industrial production posted a 7.2 percent year-on-year decline. August brought the 8M20 dynamic to -4.5 percent year-on-year. The data matched the BCS GM forecast (-7 percent), but was lower than the consensus estimate (-6.2 percent). In seasonally adjusted terms, output in industry improved from -7.3 percent year-on-year in July to -7 percent last month. (bne Intellinews, 09.16.20)
  • In a surprising retreat, Russia’s main Arctic infrastructure developer, Rosatom, has urged the Kremlin to scale back sweeping goals for the Northern Sea Route, saying shipping levels along the icy corridor will likely fall short of those demanded by Putin. (Bellona, 09.15.20)
  • The Moscow Metro is expected to roll out what City Hall says will be the world’s first fare payment system based on facial recognition starting next spring. (The Moscow Times, 09.18.20)
  • Relatives of Russian citizens will now be able to obtain simplified Russian visas valid for up to 12 months. (The Moscow Times, 09.16.20)

Defense and aerospace:

  • "We will continue to boost the human capacity of the defense industry, particularly by creating conditions for talented managers, researchers and designers, who are now in their thirties and forties, to fully develop their skills,” Putin told a meeting of the Military Industrial Commission on Sept. 18. (TASS, 09.18.20)
  • Russia is increasing its military presence in the Far East in response to rising tensions in the wider region, Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said Sept. 17. In remarks cited on the Defense Ministry website, Shoigu said reinforcements were being sent because of tensions in the “eastern strategic direction,” referring to an area encompassing Russia’s eastern border with China and the wider Asia-Pacific. (Reuters, 09.17.20)

Security, law-enforcement and justice:

  • Less than a month after he was poisoned with what Germany says was the Soviet-era nerve agent Novichok, Navalny released his own update from Berlin's Charité hospital Sept. 15, writing in an Instagram post that he is now able to breathe on his own. Meanwhile, Navalny's spokeswoman, Kira Yarmysh, confirmed the opposition activist's intent to return to Russia once he has recovered. "No other options were ever considered," Yarmysh wrote on Twitter. (The Washington Post, 09.15.20)
    • Traces of the poison that put Navalny into a weeks-long coma were detected on a water bottle recovered from his Siberian hotel room, according to a post Sept. 17 on his Instagram page. Aides collected items from his room at the Xander Hotel in Siberia as soon as he fell ill. The plastic water bottle, Navalny's team and German investigators say, eventually helped German military scientists determine that the opposition leader had been poisoned with a class of chemical weapon called a Novichok. (The Washington Post, 09.17.20, New York Times, 09.18.20)
    • Leonid Volkov, Navalny’s chief of staff, who is in Berlin, said on Sept. 15 that  Navalny would not be cooperating with a Russian investigation. He said that Navalny’s team was talking to German officials about the government’s response to Russia and that they welcomed the clarity with which German and other European officials had condemned the poisoning. (New York Times, 09.15.20)
    • The German government has said that laboratories in France and Sweden have independently confirmed its claim that Navalny was poisoned by a nerve agent from the Novichok group. (Financial Times, 09.14.20)
    • The Kremlin on Sept. 18 said Russia's ability to probe Navalny's suspected poisoning was "limited" and accused his aides of taking potential evidence out of the country. (The Moscow Times, 09.18.20)
  • The Moscow City Court has upheld the extension of pretrial detention for former journalist Ivan Safronov, who is charged with high treason, to Dec. 7. (RFE/RL, 09.15.20)
  • A court in Russia has sentenced seven Crimean Tatars to lengthy prison terms on charges of being members of a banned Islamic group, Hizb ut-Tahrir, which is labeled as extremist and banned in Russia but is legal in Ukraine. (RFE/RL, 09.16.20)
  • A notorious Russian antigay ultranationalist, Maksim Martsinkevich—also known as "Tesak" (Machete)—has been found dead in the cell of a detention center in the Chelyabinsk region. (RFE/RL, 09.16.20)

 

III. Russia’s relations with other countries

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

  • The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, the world's chemical weapons watchdog, is expected to release in the coming days the results of its own analysis of biomedical samples collected from Navalny by its team of experts, the agency said in a statement on Sept. 17. If those results confirm the German, French and Swedish findings, the German government would move quickly to impose financial sanctions on Russia through the EU, according to a senior German security official. (New York Times, 09.18.20)
  • The Elysée said on Sept. 14 that French President Emmanuel Macron had told Putin that France’s own analysis had concluded that Navalany had been poisoned by Novichok. Macron also reiterated his “full solidarity with Germany on the steps to be taken” and that “clarification is needed from Russia in the context of a credible and transparent investigation.” Putin, in turn, reiterated that the unsubstantiated and groundless accusations made against Russia in this context are inappropriate, the Kremlin press service said. (Financial Times, 09.14.20, Interfax, 09.14.20)
  • Latvian Prime Minister Krisjanis Karins says the poisoning of Navalny shows that the EU must get more realistic about its dealings with Russia. (RFE/RL, 09.13.20)
  • More than a dozen attack jets that Russia sent to Libya this year are conducting ground strikes and other combat missions in support of Russian mercenaries fighting alongside beleaguered commander Khalifa Hifter in his campaign to oust the government from Tripoli, a top American military official said. (New York Times, 09.11.20)
    • A video that recently appeared on social media purportedly shows a Russian-speaking pilot after their aircraft went down in Libya who is about to be picked up by an Mi-24 Hind gunship helicopter. (The Drive, 09. 08.20)
  • Poland has taken the first steps to arrest three Russian air traffic controllers whom it accuses of provoking a fatal plane crash that killed Polish President Lech Kaczynski in 2010, Polish media reported late Sept. 16. (The Moscow Times, 09.17.20)
  • About a third of Russians (37 percent) consider Russia a great power, and another 29 percent think that the country will become one again in the next 15-20 years, according to state-owned pollster the Russian Public Opinion Research Centre (VTsIOM). The number of Russians who consider Russia a great power has decreased by 12 percent since 2018, when 49 percent of respondents believed Russia was a great power. In comparison with the figures for 2017, the number of these responses decreased by 20 percent from 57 percent to 37 percent. (bne Intellinews, 09.15.20)
  • The share of Russians who have a good or very good attitude toward the EU decreased from 49 percent in January 2020 to 48 percent in August 2020, while the share of Russians who have a bad or very bad attitude toward the EU increased from 37 percent to 39 percent over the same period, according to the Levada Center’s latest report on the results of its recent opinion polls asking Russians about their attitudes toward other countries. (Russia Matters, 09.17.20)

China-Russia: Allied or Aligned?

  • For the first time this year, less than 50 percent of the trade between China and Russia was denominated in the U.S. dollar. According to the Central Bank of Russia, in the first quarter of 2020, only 46 percent of the goods bought and sold by Russia and China used the dollar. (CTGN, 09.17.20)
  • According to data from the Russian Federal Customs Service, the volume of Russian-Chinese trade decreased by 5.7 percent in the first half of 2020, compared to the same period last year, to $48.2 billion (exports from Russia to China fell by 11.6 percent to $23.8 billion, and imports from China increased by 0.8 percent to $24.4 billion). At the same time, China’s share in Russia’s total trade turnover for six months increased from 16 percent to 18.1 percent, but the trade balance with the PRC became negative. If last year exports to China exceeded imports by $2.65 billion, now it is lower by $655 million. (Kommersant, 09.08.20)
  • China and Russia will strengthen cooperation in four areas, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said Sept. 16. First, the two countries will support international anti-pandemic cooperation, and in particular, support the World Health Organization in playing a coordinating role, support various countries in accelerating drug and vaccine research and development and call for efforts to stop politicizing the pandemic and virus. Second, China and Russia will set an exemplar of major-country peaceful coexistence, and constructive major-country coordinated relations are indispensable to solve global problems. Third, the two sides will strengthen cutting-edge scientific and technological innovations. Fourth, they will safeguard international justice and equity. (Xinhua, 09.17.20)
  • China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Mongolia have agreed to jointly build an anti-pandemic fortress, a Health Silk Road and a community of health, Chinese State Councilor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi said Sept. 16. The decision was made after he exchanged views with the foreign ministers of the other countries, according to Wang, who attended the meeting of foreign ministers of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) and visited the four countries on Sept. 10-16. The meeting of foreign ministers of SCO member countries has pushed forward international cooperation against the COVID-19 pandemic and pledged support for multilateralism, he said. (Xinhua, 09.17.20, Xinhua, 09.16.20)
  • Security chiefs from the SCO member nations have expressed concern over growing global migration as it creates threats amid the pandemic and economic slump, Secretary of the Russian Security Council Nikolai Patrushev said on Sept. 15 after an online meeting with his SCO counterparts. (TASS, 09.15.20)
  • Russians continue to view China as the second most friendly country to Russia, though the share of those who think so declined from 42 percent in 2019 to 40 percent in 2020, according to the Levada Center’s latest report on the results of its recent opinion polls asking Russians about their attitudes toward other countries. The share of Russians who view China as the most hostile country held steady at 3 percent in that period. (Russia Matters, 09.17.20)

Ukraine:

  • Head of the Office of the President of Ukraine Andriy Yermak said Sept. 13 that he expects that at the next meeting of the Trilateral Contact Group next week, a specific date for the mutual release of detainees in Donbass will be discussed. (Interfax, 09.14.20)
  • The political advisors to the heads of state of the Normandy Four nations did not discuss all the issues in Berlin on Sept. 11, so there will be another meeting to continue preparations for a summit of the leaders of France, Germany, Russia and Ukraine to settle the conflict in Donbass, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said. (Interfax, 09.12.20)
  • The Kremlin hails the agreements reached by the Trilateral Contact Group on Ukraine, according to which the Ukrainian positions in Donbass will be inspected together with representatives of the self-proclaimed republics, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said. (Interfax, 09.10.20)
  • Head of the Ukrainian delegation at the Trilateral Contact Group, first president of independent Ukraine Leonid Kravchuk, has said that the Minsk Agreements cannot be implemented as they now stand, and it is Normandy Four leaders who can find a way out of this situation. (Interfax, 09.11.20)
  • "During the discussion of the Ukrainian domestic conflict, they have expressed concern over the lack of progress on the implementation of the 2015 Minsk Agreements that remain the only possible basis for regulation," the Kremlin press service said regarding Putin’s phone call with Macron on Sept. 14. (TASS, 09.14.20, Interfax, 09.14.20)
  • The Ukrainian Defense Ministry is working on the Military Security Strategy, Defense Minister Andriy Taran has said. "The newest National Security Strategy, adopted by the Supreme Commander, contains an unambiguous imperative to receive an invitation and join the Action Plan for NATO membership,” he said. (Interfax, 09.18.20)
  • A politically fraught investigation led by U.S. Senate Republicans regarding Biden's dealings with Ukraine while he was vice president is nearing completion. Sen. Ron Johnson, chairman of the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Government Affairs, and Senate Finance Committee Chairman Charles E. Grassley are expected to argue that Hunter Biden's ties to the firm, Burisma, posed a conflict of interest for the Obama administration, as the younger Biden's company was lobbying the State Department while his father directed the government's Ukraine policy. Democrats, while acknowledging the poor optics posed by Hunter Biden's position, are expected to reject the assertion. (The Washington Post, 09.13.20)
    • Introducing a resolution to block the Republican report, Sen. Chuck Schumer argued that the Homeland Security Committee’s inquiry into the younger Biden was aiding a Russian attack on the election by reviving the same unsubstantiated claims about the Bidens that the American authorities have said Moscow was promoting, actions that resulted in new sanctions last week against a Ukrainian with ties to Russia. (New York Times, 09.17.20)
  • The U.S. Embassy in Ukraine has called on Kyiv to investigate all crimes against journalists as the country marked the 20th anniversary of the day when prominent reporter Heorhiy Gongadze disappeared and was later found dead. (RFE/RL, 09.16.20)
  • Hundreds of ultra-Orthodox Jewish pilgrims have camped out for days in the forested no man's land between Belarus and Ukraine, stranded by new Ukrainian border restrictions aimed at slowing the spread of the novel coronavirus as the country experiences a surge. (bne Intellinews, 09.17.20)
  • SCM Group owner Rinat Akhmetov remains the richest Ukrainian in 2019 according to the Focus magazine, with a fortune of $7.2 billion. (Interfax, 09.11.20)
  • Ukraine has consistently polled as the second most hostile country to Russia, with 40 percent of Russians holding that view in 2019 and 35 percent in 2020, according to the Levada Center’s latest report on the results of its recent opinion polls asking Russians about their attitudes toward other countries. (Russia Matters, 09.17.20)
  • Some 12.6 percent of Ukrainians believe that the Russian language should be the state language throughout Ukraine, while 17.9 percent believe it should be the official language in certain regions, according to the results of a sociological survey conducted by the Ilko Kucheriv Democratic Initiatives Foundation in cooperation with the social service of the Razumkov Center. (Interfax, 09.10.20)

Belarus:

  • Belarus will close its borders with Poland and Lithuania and step up security measures at the Ukrainian frontier, Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko said Sept. 17. Lukashenko called on the people of Poland and Lithuania to “stop your crazy politicians,” whom he warned are spoiling for war. (The Moscow Times, 09.18.20, bne Intellinews, 09.18.20)
  • Putin opened his Sept. 14 meeting with Lukashenko, the first between the two authoritarian leaders since the crisis in Belarus began, by congratulating Lukashenko on his landslide victory. Putin said Russia would give Belarus a $1.5 billion loan and uphold its promises of security assistance. Putin said that Russia would also hold joint military exercises with Belarus “practically every month” for the next year in addition to an existing promise to deploy Russian police forces. “Russia remains committed to all of our agreements,” Putin said in remarks carried by state media as their meeting began. “We see Belarus as our closest ally, and of course, as I have already told you many times in our phone calls, we will deliver on all the obligations we have assumed.” (Financial Times, 09.14.20)
    • Stating that ''we would like Belarusians to sort this situation out on their own,'' Putin  also urged dialogue—something that Lukashenko has repeatedly ruled out with his opponents, whom he has scorned as ''rats'' and ''tricksters'' manipulated by the West. Lukashenko, clearly uncomfortable, mopped his brow with a handkerchief when Putin finished talking. Putin will encourage steps toward an “eventual succession” in Belarus but will not accept the opposition coming to power through street protests. Moscow doesn’t trust Lukashenko but is “determined” not to see protesters topple his rule, Bloomberg cited five unnamed sources close to the Kremlin as saying. (The Moscow Times, 09.14.20, New York Times, 09.15.20)
    • On Sept. 14, Belarusian opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya condemned Moscow's decision to support the Belarusian president. (Wall Street Journal, 09.15.20)
  • Dozens of women have been arrested in Minsk after riot police moved in to break up a protest that authorities said had not been sanctioned on Sept. 12. More than a quarter of a million Belarusians turned out for the Sept. 13 “March of the Heroes” rally, according to estimates, as the protests against Lukashenko continued to gather momentum fueled by the mounting brutality of the police. (bne Intellinews, 09.14.20, RFE/RL, 09.12.20)
  • Russia has withdrawn a rapidly formed unit of “law enforcement reserves” that had been standing by to intervene in Belarus if the country’s post-election unrest got out of hand, the Kremlin said Sept. 14. (The Moscow Times, 09.15.20)
  • Kazakhstan’s Defense Ministry says military maneuvers scheduled to be held in Belarus in October by the member states of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) have nothing to do with ongoing protests against Lukashenko. (RFE/RL, 09.16.20)
  • The EU does not recognize Lukashenko as the legitimate president of Belarus, the bloc's top diplomat said on Sept. 15. High Representative of the European Union Josep Borrell told the European Parliament that the Aug. 9 election which returned the strongman to power was fraudulent. (RFE/RL, 09.15.20)
  • "While exchanging opinions on Belarus, Russia reaffirmed its fundamental position that any attempts to interfere in the internal affairs of this sovereign state and exert external pressure on its legitimate authorities are unacceptable, the Kremlin press service said regarding Putin’s phone call with Macron on Sept. 14. (Interfax, 09.14.20)
  • Lukashenko has stripped the diplomatic status of two ambassadors who openly supported ongoing public protests challenging official results of a presidential election they say was rigged. (RFE/RL, 09.17.20)
  • Lukashenko has transferred his youngest son to an elite boarding school in Moscow. (The Moscow Times, 09.17.20)
  • Russia's foreign intelligence chief Sergei Naryshkin on Sept. 16 accused the U.S. of protecting Tikhanovskaya and allocating $20 million to promote anti-government protests. (The Moscow Times, 09.16.20)
  • Tikhanovskaya said she was putting together a list of law enforcement personnel responsible for beatings and arbitrary arrests for possible future prosecution. (The Moscow Times, 09.17.20)
  • The U.N. has estimated up to 6,000 people have been subjected to detentions and, in some cases, torture by Belarusian security agents. (RFE/RL, 09.13.20)
  • The OSCE has launched an investigation into alleged human rights abuses and election fraud in Belarus. (RFE/RL, 09.17.20)
  • Human Rights Watch has released a report detailing the brutal police beatings and torture by Belarusian security forces during the crackdown on demonstrations that followed the blatantly falsified presidential election results on Aug. 9. (bne Intellinews, 09.16.20)
  • Belarusian opposition leader Maryya Kalesnikava has been officially charged with calling for action aimed at damaging the country's national security. (RFE/RL, 09.16.20)
  • Twenty-nine countries including the U.S. and Germany issued a joint statement Sept. 17 condemning Belarus for Internet shutdowns and blocking websites after a "fraudulent" presidential election last month. (RFE/RL, 09.18.20)
  • Vitaly Shklyarov, a Belarusian-American political strategist who has been held in a Minsk jail for nearly six weeks, has suffered a broken finger and had a high fever in recent days, his lawyer said, with his jailers refusing his demands to test him for COVID-19. (RFE/RL, 09.14.20)
  • Belarus has remained Russia’s closest ally in the eyes of Russians, however, the share of Russians who view Belarus as the country most friendly to their own declined in 2020 to 58 percent, according to the Levada Center’s latest report on the results of its recent opinion polls asking Russians about their attitudes toward other countries. The share of Russians who think Russia and Belarus should either form a closer alliance or Belarus should become part of Russia increased from 23 percent in December 2019 to 24 percent in August 2020. The majority of Russians, however, continue to believe that Russia and Belarus should more actively develop economic cooperation or keep relations at the current level. (Russia Matters, 09.17.20)

Russia's other post-Soviet neighbors:

  • Moldova’s GDP contracted by a real 14 percent year-on-year to 44.6 billion Moldovan leu in the second quarter, the statistics bureau, BNS, announced. (bne Intellinews, 09.16.20)
  • Tajikistan's long-serving President Emomali Rahmon and four other men have been registered as candidates for a presidential election scheduled for Oct. 11. (RFE/RL, 09.14.20)
  • Reports from Uzbekistan contradict the government's claim that it has phased out its internationally-criticized policy of forcing citizens into farm fields to pick cotton every autumn. (RFE/RL, 09.17.20)
  • Switzerland and Uzbekistan have reached an agreement on returning more than $130 million to Tashkent that was seized in connection with criminal proceedings against Gulnara Karimova, the oldest daughter of late Uzbek President Islam Karimov. (RFE/RL, 09.14.20)
  • Amendments that introduce a simplified way to obtain Uzbek citizenship came into force on Sept. 15. (RFE/RL, 09.15.20)
  • Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin has signed a decree on reopening the de facto border with Georgia's breakaway region of South Ossetia. (RFE/RL, 09.15.20)

 

IV. Quoteworthy

  • No significant developments.