Russia in Review, Sept. 25-Oct. 2, 2020
This Week’s Highlights
- The Trump administration has asked the military to assess how quickly it could pull nuclear weapons out of storage and load them onto bombers and submarines if the New START treaty is allowed to expire in February, Politico reports. "We are not going to buy this extension of the New START at any price, especially not at the price which the U.S. wants us to pay," Russia Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said, according to the Wall Street Journal.
- Outgoing head of the U.K.’s MI6 Alex Younger said terrorism is a more existential threat than Russia, the Financial Times reports. “I think it’s really important that we avoid two mistakes here: the first is to do Russia’s job for them by bigging it up; I haven’t seen in the U.K. any occasion where this stuff has made a strategic difference. Secondly, and related, I think we should keep this in proportion. The Russians did not create the things that divide us—we did that,” Younger said.
- Russian President Vladimir Putin sent U.S. President Donald Trump, who has tested positive for the coronavirus, a telegram wishing him and Melania Trump “a speedy recovery and expressing sincere support at this difficult moment,” the Kremlin said, The New York Times reports. Meanwhile, the Kremlin has imposed a mandatory two-week quarantine for anyone scheduled to meet Putin in person as COVID-19 cases in Russia continue to rise, The Moscow Times reports.
- The leaders of Russia, France and the U.S. have issued a joint demand for an immediate ceasefire between Armenian and Azerbaijani forces, as the death toll from a spiraling conflict between the neighbors over a territorial dispute continued to rise, the Financial Times reports. “We condemn in the strongest terms the recent escalation of violence . . . [and] call for an immediate cessation of hostilities between the relevant military forces,” the three presidents said in a joint statement Oct. 1. The Foreign Ministry in Yerevan said in a statement Oct. 2 that it welcomed the Minsk Group’s joint call and that Armenia is willing to engage in peace talks, RFE/RL reports, while Azerbaijan has not responded to the call, according to Reuters.
- Russian opposition politician Alexei Navalny blames Putin for the poisoning in August that nearly took his life and vows to return home to continue his anti-corruption campaign, RFE/RL reports. "I will not give Putin the gift of not returning to Russia," he said in an interview, adding that for him, "Putin is behind this act. I don't see any other explanation.” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov accused Navalny of working with the CIA and making "groundless and unacceptable statements" after he claimed Putin had orchestrated his poisoning, according to The Moscow Times, and Navalny plans to sue Peskov over the accusation.
I. U.S. and Russian priorities for the bilateral agenda
- No significant developments.
North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs:
- No significant developments.
Iran and its nuclear program:
- The U.N.'s nuclear watchdog says it has gained access to a second site in Iran where nuclear activities are suspected to have taken place in the past, as agreed with Tehran last month. (RFE/RL, 09.30.20)
New Cold War/saber rattling:
- Russian President Vladimir Putin is using Belarus's crisis to press Alexander Lukashenko to accede to Russian demands for greater sway, which have long included putting military bases on Belarusian territory. That could position Russian forces as a pincer on either side of the 60-mile Polish-Lithuanian border. Dubbed the Suwalki Gap after the small Polish city in its middle, it is seen as the alliance's weak point. (Wall Street Journal, 09.28.20)
- “The United States and NATO are expanding their military activities not in the Atlantic or Caribbean regions, but at a distance of some 20-30 kilometers off the Russian borders,” Valery Gerasimov, chief of the General Staff of the Russian Armed Forces, said during a briefing after the completion of the Kavkaz-2020 military drills. (The National Interest, 09.30.20)
- Outgoing head of U.K.’s MI6 Alex Younger said terrorism is a more existential threat than Russia. Relations with Russia he likens to a “boiling frog,” with Britain and its allies only gradually discovering how far the Kremlin is willing to provoke mischief. “I think it’s really important that we avoid two mistakes here: the first is to do Russia’s job for them by bigging it up; I haven’t seen in the U.K. any occasion where this stuff has made a strategic difference. Secondly, and related, I think we should keep this in proportion. The Russians did not create the things that divide us—we did that. They are adept, albeit in a rather crass manner, at exacerbating those things and I believe that we should prevent that.” (Financial Times, 09.30.20)
- The U.K.’s army chief, Gen. Mark Carleton-Smith, has said its future is “boots and bots”—troops and robots advancing together to the battlefield supported by “swarms of drones” which identify artillery targets. But Gen. Nick Carter, chief of the defense staff, suggested it may never come to that, as Russia and China choose tactics and operations that occur just below the threshold for conflict. He cited cyber attacks, disinformation campaigns and mass surveillance being used to wage “political warfare” on the West, with the goal of “breaking its willpower.” (Financial Times, 10.01.20)
- No significant developments.
- No significant developments.
Nuclear arms control:
- "We are not going to buy this extension of the New START at any price, especially not at the price which the U.S. wants us to pay," Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said. "I think our positions are currently very far apart,” Ryabkov said. Ryabkov told The Wall Street Journal that the Trump administration's demand that a future treaty cover all Russia, Chinese and U.S. warheads and include more-intrusive verification is "clearly a nonstarter for us." He also warned that Moscow is prepared to respond if the U.S. allows the New START treaty to lapse and moves to expand its nuclear arsenal. "We would be ready to counter this," he said. (Wall Street Journal, 10.01.20)
- The Trump administration has asked the military to assess how quickly it could pull nuclear weapons out of storage and load them onto bombers and submarines if New START is allowed to expire in February, according to three people familiar with the discussions. (Politico, 09.28.20)
- The Polish authorities have deported five Tajik nationals suspected of having links to the Islamic State and recruiting Poles and Ukrainian citizens for terrorist acts in Poland. (RFE/RL, 09.29.20)
Conflict in Syria:
- Russia’s military operation against terrorists in Syria was necessary and helped to preserve Syrian statehood and defeat the Islamic State, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said. More than 133,000 terrorists have been killed in Syria since Russia launched its military operation in the country, the Russian defense minister said. (TASS, 09.30.20)
- The Russian military used the experience gained in current armed conflicts, including the one in Syria, in practice while holding the strategic exercise Kavkaz-2020, Gerasimov told a news briefing. (TASS, 09.25.20)
- Russian and Turkish troops have held a joint drill in the Idlib de-escalation area in Syria. (Interfax, 09.28.20)
- Russian state-backed hackers are the most prolific of any government-backed hackers in the world, according to Microsoft's first ever "Digital Defense Report." (Business Insider, 10.01.20)
- A Russian national has been sentenced to seven years and four months in U.S. prison on charges of hacking LinkedIn and Dropbox, the Courthouse News Service website reported Sept. 29. Yevgeny Nikulin is accused of stealing some 117 million LinkedIn and Dropbox login codes in one of the country’s largest data breaches in 2012. He was arrested by the FBI in the Czech Republic in 2016 and extradited to the United States two years later. (The Moscow Times, 09.30.20)
- The U.K. has developed an offensive cyber capability which can “degrade, disrupt and even destroy” its enemies’ critical infrastructure, giving Britain an edge in what is becoming the most active domain in modern warfare, Gen. Sir Patrick Sanders, head of Strategic Command, has warned. (Financial Times, 09.28.20)
- Facebook said it would prohibit political advertising that “seeks to delegitimize an election,” including claims of widespread voting fraud or corrupt voting methods. (Financial Times, 10.01.20)
- Russia and China are using cyber attacks, disinformation campaigns and mass surveillance to wage “political warfare” on the West, with the goal of “breaking its willpower” without ever escalating into formal conflict, the head of Britain’s armed forces Gen. Nick Carter warned. (Financial Times, 09.30.20)
- U.S. President Donald Trump's spy chief ignored urgings from senior U.S. officials not to release information about Russian intelligence material containing unverified allegations about Hillary Clinton and the 2016 election, according to people familiar with the matter. Officials at the CIA and NSA, as well as nonpolitical career personnel within the office of Director of National Intelligence John Ratcliffe, feared that sharing the information with Congress would give credence to unsubstantiated Kremlin-backed material. (Wall Street Journal, 09.30.20)
- Former FBI director James Comey on Sept. 30 defended the bureau's 2016 investigation into possible coordination between the Trump campaign and Russia, pushing back on Senate Republicans' skeptical questions about the probe and taking particular aim at Attorney General William Barr's assertion that it was unfounded. (The Washington Post, 10.01.20)
- Senate Republicans sought on Sept. 30 to promote their efforts to rewrite the narrative of the Trump-Russia investigation before Election Day, using a hearing with Comey to cast doubt on the entire inquiry by highlighting problems with a narrower aspect of it. Led by Sen. Lindsey Graham, Republicans on the Senate Judiciary Committee spent hours burrowing into mistakes and omissions made by the FBI when it applied for court permission to wiretap former Trump campaign adviser Carter Page in 2016 and 2017. (New York Times, 10.01.20)
Energy exports from CIS:
- No significant developments.
U.S.-Russian economic ties:
- No significant developments.
U.S.-Russian relations in general:
- Trump is experiencing cold-like symptoms after testing positive for the coronavirus, according to two people familiar with his condition. Putin sent Trump a telegram wishing him and Melania Trump “a speedy recovery and expressing sincere support at this difficult moment,” the Kremlin said. The Russian leader claims to be conquering the pandemic, but he inhabits a virus-free bubble, rarely leaving home. The few people he meets must quarantine first. (New York Times, 10.02.20)
II. Russia’s domestic policies
Domestic politics, economy and energy:
- Russia confirmed 9,412 new COVID-19 cases Oct. 2, bringing the country’s official number of cases to 1,194,643 as the number of new infections across the country continues to rise. (The Moscow Times, 10.02.20) 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.
- Early clinical trials have been completed on a second Russian vaccine, a health official said Sept. 30. Russian authorities said earlier this month that it planned to register the second vaccine, made by Vektor, a Siberian laboratory that studied biological weapons during the Cold War, by Oct. 15. A third Russian vaccine, made by the Chumakov Institute in Moscow and based on inactivated coronavirus, is now in early-stage trials. (New York Times, 09.30.20)
- Moscow could receive bulk shipments of Russia’s Sputnik V coronavirus vaccine by the end of 2020 while the vaccine continues to undergo final clinical trials, Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin said Oct. 1. (The Moscow Times, 10.02.20)
- Sobyanin has ordered companies to send at least 30 percent of staff to work from home between Oct. 5-28. (The Moscow Times, 10.01.20)
- The Kremlin has imposed a mandatory two-week quarantine for anyone scheduled to meet Putin in person. (The Moscow Times, 09.30.20)
- Russia’s lower house of parliament, the State Duma, will partially return to remote work to limit the spread of the coronavirus, its speaker Vyacheslav Volodin announced Sept. 29. (The Moscow Times, 09.29.20)
- Cumulatively Russian companies collectively posted 5,370 billion rubles ($68 billion) of profit in July, the latest data available, which is on a par with profits in 2016 and 2017, but still well behind the 9,111 billion rubles they earned in 2019. (bne IntelliNews, 09.29.20)
- Russia’s leading shopping malls had made back 85 percent of the ground they lost during the coronavirus (COVID-19) lockdown in May and June by the 36th week of this year, according to the Watcom Shopping index. (bne IntelliNews, 10.01.20)
- Russian opposition politician Alexei Navalny blames Putin for the poisoning in August that nearly took his life and vows to return home to continue his anti-corruption campaign. "I will not give Putin the gift of not returning to Russia," he said in an interview published Oct. 1, adding that for him, "Putin is behind this act. I don't see any other explanation.” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov accused Navalny of working with the CIA and making "groundless and unacceptable statements" after he claimed Putin had orchestrated his poisoning. Navalny plans to sue Peskov over the accusation. (RFE/RL, 10.01.20, The Moscow Times, 10.01.20)
- Human Rights Watch has criticized Russia's plans to expand the use of "invasive" facial-recognition systems because of the group's "serious concern" over the project's potential threat to privacy. (RFE/RL, 10.02.20)
- Russia’s easternmost territory of Kamchatka will establish a so-called “ministry of happiness” to improve its residents’ well-being. (The Moscow Times, 10.01.20)
Defense and aerospace:
- Joint military exercises, which started on Sept. 21, involving about 80,000 Russian personnel as well as troops from Iran, Armenia, Belarus, China, Myanmar and Pakistan, concluded on Sept. 26. Up to 250 tanks, 450 infantry fighting vehicles and armored personnel carriers and 200 artillery and missile systems participated. Ships of the Black Sea Fleet and the Caspian flotilla joined the action, too, in the company of Iranian navy vessels. The closing ceremony of the "Kavkaz-2020" strategic exercise was held at the Kapustin Yar Range on Sept. 26., at which Lt. Gen. Liu Xiaowu, deputy commander of the Chinese PLA Western Theater Command and commanding officer of the Chinese participating troops, delivered a speech. The participating troops from different countries cooperated closely and fought side by side, successfully completed the drill tasks and forged a deep fighting friendship, Liu noted. (The News, 09.28.20, China Military Online, 09.27.20)
- Russia’s military is now more capable than at any time since the end of the Cold War, according to a new report. After more than a decade of investment and reform, Russia’s troops are better equipped and more professional than their predecessors, according to “Russia’s Military Modernization: An Assessment,” a report published on Sept. 30 by the International Institute for Strategic Studies. (Bloomberg, 09.30.20)
- Russia said Sept. 29 that astronauts had found an air leak in its section of the International Space Station. (The Moscow Times, 09.30.20)
Security, law-enforcement and justice:
- A Russian scientist has been arrested in southern Siberia on suspicion of passing tech secrets to China. FSB officers from Moscow reportedly searched the apartment of Alexander Lukanin in the city of Tomsk 3,500 kilometers east of the Russian capital. Lukanin is currently in pre-trial detention. (The Moscow Times, 10.01.20)
- Russian authorities have discovered pre-installed wiretap devices inside imported clothing irons, the Industry and Trade Ministry’s top radio-electronics industry official said Sept. 30. Vasily Shpak warned that bugged appliances and electronic devices are a commonplace reality but did not specify the countries in which the irons were allegedly manufactured nor the potential motives for wiretapping. (The Moscow Times, 10.01.20)
- A Russian court has lengthened the term prominent Gulag historian Yury Dmitriyev must serve in prison to 13 years, a surprise increase of a lenient sentence for charges his allies say were trumped up to silence him. Dmitriyev was sentenced to 3.5 years in prison in July after a city court in northwestern Russia found him guilty of sexually assaulting his adopted daughter. (The Moscow Times, 09.29.20)
III. Russia’s relations with other countries
Russia’s general foreign policy and relations with “far abroad” countries:
- Germany on Sept. 25 pressed Russia and China to allow the release of an interim U.N. report on violations of the arms embargo on Libya that found violations by Moscow-linked fighters. (AFP, 09.25.20)
- Rosatom has completed the delivery of steam generators for the Akkuyu 1 and Rooppur units under construction in Turkey and Bangladesh. The equipment was produced by Atommash, part of the Volgodonsk branch of Rosatom’s engineering subsidiary AEM Technology. (World Nuclear News, 10.02.20)
- Lebanon has asked Interpol to issue arrest warrants for the Russian captain and owner of the vessel that brought a shipment of ammonium nitrate behind a massive explosion at Beirut port in August. Lebanon's state news agency NNA said Oct. 1 that public prosecutors have asked Interpol to issue warrants against the two Russians as part of a widening probe into what caused the explosion, which killed nearly 200 people, wounded thousands and devastated downtown Beirut. (RFE/RL, 10.02.20)
China-Russia: Allied or Aligned?
- Chinese authorities have restricted seafood imports from Russia after finding traces of the coronavirus on the seafood’s outer packaging, Vedomosti reported Oct. 1. China, the destination for 60 percent of Russia’s seafood exports, has so far placed restrictions on four Russian companies. (The Moscow Times, 10.02.20)
- The leaders of Russia, France and the U.S. have issued a joint demand for an immediate ceasefire between Armenian and Azerbaijani forces. “We condemn in the strongest terms the recent escalation of violence . . . [and] call for an immediate cessation of hostilities between the relevant military forces,” the three presidents said in a joint statement on Oct. 1. (Financial Times, 10.01.20)
- The Foreign Ministry in Yerevan said in a statement on Oct. 2 that it welcomed the Minsk Group’s joint call and that Armenia is willing to engage in peace talks, but Azerbaijan fired back that Armenia must first withdraw its troops. (RFE/RL, 10.02.20, The Moscow Times, 10.02.20)
- On Oct. 1 Macron said Azerbaijan initiated the recent conflict with Armenia. On Oct. 2, Macron said in a statement he had spoken on the phone successively with the prime minister of Armenia and the president of Azerbaijan about the situation in Nagorno-Karabakh and had proposed a new method to restart talks within the Minsk group. (Reuters, 10.02.20, Deutsche Welle, 10.01.20)
- Trump said Sept. 27 that the U.S. would seek to end the violence. “We're looking at it very strongly,” he told a news briefing. (Daily Mail, 09.28.20)
- The U.N. Security Council has "strongly condemned" the violence between Azerbaijani and Armenian forces. (RFE/RL, 09.30.20)
- Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan opposes the involvement of the U.S., Russia and France in resolution of the conflict and he called for Armenia to leave the territory of Karabakh. Turkey is "fully ready" to help Azerbaijan take back its Karabakh, Erdogan's top press aide said. (The Moscow Times, 09.29.20, Financial Times, 10.01.20, The Moscow Times, 09.29.20, Reuters, 10.01.20)
- Armenia has accused Azerbaijan of recruiting foreign fighters from Syria. According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, Turkey transported about 300 fighters from territories it controls in northern Syria to Azerbaijan. Turkey is sending Syrian rebel fighters to support Azerbaijan in its escalating conflict with neighboring Armenia, two Syrian rebels told Reuters. One fighter had fought in Syria for Ahrar al-Sham, a group that Turkey has supported. Ahrar al-Sham worked with the Islamic State until January 2014, when IS killed an Ahrar al-Sham fighter, while one of its founders, Abu Khalid al-Suri, acted as Al Qaeda’s representative in Syria, according to Stanford’s resource on militant organizations. The other fighter was with the SNA-affiliated Jaish al-Nukhba militia. (Wall Street Journal, 10.02.20, Reuters, 09.28.20, bne IntelliNews, 09.28.20, Stanford, undated)
- Macron accused Turkey on Oct. 1 of sending Syrian jihadists to fight in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. Macron said he had information showing that mercenaries from Syria had reached Nagorno-Karabakh after passing through Turkey. (Reuters, 10.01.20)
- Russia's Foreign Ministry said Sept. 30 that fighters from Syria and Libya were being deployed to the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict and that it was "deeply concerned" by the development. (The Moscow Times, 10.01.20)
- Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and his Iranian counterpart, Mohammad Javad Zarif, had a phone conversation, during which they expressed concern about the involvement of militants from Syria and Libya in the Karabakh conflict, and called for an immediate ceasefire and de-escalation of tensions, the Russian Foreign Ministry said. (UrduPoint, 10.02.20)
- The Armenian foreign ministry said in a statement that Turkey had a “direct presence on the ground.” Turkish military experts, it added, were “fighting side by side” with Azerbaijan, which it said was also using Turkish weapons including armed drones and warplanes, including F-16s. Azerbaijan denied the allegations. Armenian authorities said Sept. 29 that a combat aircraft, a Sukhoi Su-25, was shot down by a Turkish F-16 warplane. A senior Turkish official said the claim was "absolutely untrue." (bne IntelliNews, 09.28.20, Wall Street Journal, 10.02.20)
- The Nagorno-Karabakh region reported another 54 military casualties among Armenian-backed troops, bringing the death toll to 158 soldiers. Azerbaijan has not reported any military casualties. Armenia said it has killed 1,750 Azeri military forces, according to data provided Oct. 2 by the government's information center. (Wall Street Journal, 10.02.20, Al Jazeera, 10.02.20)
- Eleven civilians have been reported killed and more than 60 wounded in Karabakh. Armenia said Oct. 2 that Azerbaijani forces struck Karabakh’s main city of Stepanakert, wounding "many" people. The Azeri prosecutor’s office said 19 civilians had been killed and 55 wounded in Armenian shelling. (Reuters, 10.02.20, The Moscow Times, 10.02.20)
- A reporter and photographer working for the French daily Le Monde have been wounded in fighting in Nagorno-Karabakh. (The Moscow Times, 10.01.20)
- Andrei Yermak, the head of Ukraine’s presidential office, put forward a proposal that members of the Contact Group seeking peace for Donbass should hold meetings every week to expedite the process of resolving the Donbass conflict. (TASS, 09.26.20)
- Search parties combing the area where a Ukrainian military aircraft crashed found two more bodies on Sept. 26, bringing the death toll to 26. One person survived. (RFE/RL, 09.26.20)
- Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba and High Representative of the EU for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Josep Borrell discussed preparations for the 22nd EU-Ukraine summit to be held in Brussels on Oct. 6. (Ukrinform, 09.28.20)
- Police in Kyiv have launched an investigation into a deadly attack on a U.S. Embassy worker. (RFE/RL, 10.01.20)
- Once a political novice, Belarusian opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya is joining Europe's diplomatic big leagues After meeting Macron this week, the self-proclaimed victor of Belarus's presidential election in August is set to meet Merkel. She has begun creating a shadow cabinet as she takes refuge in neighboring Lithuania. (The Moscow Times, 10.01.20, RFE/RL, 09.30.20)
- Belarus says it is introducing a list of people barred from entering the country in retaliation against EU plans to impose sanctions on dozens of individuals in Belarus responsible for fraud in the August presidential election and a brutal crackdown on protesters and opposition members who have taken to the streets saying the vote was rigged. Britain and Canada have imposed targeted personal sanctions on Lukashenko, his eldest son Viktor and six other top officials. The U.S. Treasury announced sanctions against multiple senior Belarussian officials on Oct. 2, but Lukashenko was not among them. (RFE/RL, 10.02.20, bne IntelliNews, 09.30.20)
- Belarusian Foreign Minister Uladzimer Makey has accused Western states of interfering in the country’s internal affairs to foment “chaos and anarchy.” (RFE/RL, 09.27.20)
- The Belarusian Foreign Ministry has canceled the accreditations of all foreign journalists in the country. (RFE/RL, 10.02.20)
- Authorities in Belarus on Sept. 29 suspended independent news provider Tut.by for three months. (The Moscow Times, 09.30.20)
- A court in Minsk has extended the pretrial detention of Belarusian-American political strategist Vitali Shkliarov for a second two-month period. (RFE/RL, 09.29.20)
- Putin said Sept. 29 that Belarus was under unprecedented external pressure. (The Moscow Times, 09.29.20)
Russia's other post-Soviet neighbors:
- Gagik Tsarukian, a wealthy businessman and leader of the Prosperous Armenia Party (BHK), has been accused of electoral bribery during the 2017 parliamentary elections. (RFE/RL, 09.26.20)
- Reporters Without Borders is calling on Georgian authorities to guarantee the safety of journalists covering the parliamentary election campaign in the country after TV crews were attacked during clashes between pro-government and pro-opposition activists. (RFE/RL, 10.01.20)
- Georgian Prime Minister Giorgi Gakharia and NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg have discussed ties, Georgia’s progress on its NATO integration path and future cooperation plans. (RFE/RL, 09.29.20)
- Moldovan prosecutors moved to seek the extradition from Turkey of apolitically influential tycoon Vladimir Plahotniuc who had been living in the United States for more than a year after fleeing Moldova amid a political shake-up. (RFE/RL, 09.29.20)
- Estonia’s Margus Kurm, a former state prosecutor and, during 2005-2009, head of the government's investigative committee looking into the sinking of ferry MS Estonia in 1994, said in an interview that new scenes of the shipwreck show the ship most likely sank after a collision with a submarine. (bne IntelliNews, 09.28.20)
- No significant developments.