https://www.russiamatters.org-This Week’s Highlights
- “It’s better for Russia if there is a decisive result, so that the loser will not resort to claims of foreign interference,” chairman of the Russian Federation Council Foreign Affairs Committee Konstantin Kosachev said of the U.S. presidential elections, according to TIME. The Moscow Times reports that Leonid Slutsky, chairman of the lower-house State Duma’s International Affairs Committee, said, “As for Russian-American relations, we can’t expect any changes for the better if any of the candidates wins. That’s very unfortunate.”
- The Nagorno-Karabakh war “may be moving towards a potentially bloody battle for the city of Shushi deep inside the territory” with Azerbaijani forces reported to be no more than 3-4 kilometers away from the mountain fortress city, Thomas de Waal of Carnegie Europe warned, according to bne IntelliNews. Armenia has requested urgent talks with Russia over security assistance in response to intensified fighting with Azerbaijan, the Financial Times reports, while The Moscow Times reports that Russia said Oct. 31 it would provide “necessary” assistance to Yerevan if fighting reached Armenian territory. Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev said there was no reason for Russia to intervene in the conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh because Baku is not threatening Armenian territory, AFP reports.
- Authorities in Austria have detained suspects from Russia’s North Caucasus region as part of an investigation into the deadly shooting rampage in Vienna, The Moscow Times reports. The only known gunman in the Nov. 2 evening shooting spree across Vienna that killed four people and wounded 22 was an ISIS supporter, according to The Moscow Times.
- Putin has signed an executive order, On the Strategy for Developing the Russian Arctic Zone and Ensuring National Security until 2035, which foresees the construction of at least five new nuclear-powered icebreakers of the Project 22220 series, and three of the Project 10510 series, World Nuclear News reports. The vessels are needed to ensure year-round navigation along the Northern Sea Route. Meanwhile, The Moscow Times reports that Russia’s Arctic Laptev Sea has not yet frozen for the first time since records began, according to the U.S. National Snow and Ice Data Center.
- Russia on Nov. 6 confirmed a record-breaking 20,582 new coronavirus cases and 378 deaths, The Moscow Times reports, as the share of Russians unwilling to vaccinate against COVID-19 has risen to 59 percent in October from nearly 54 percent in August, according to a recent Levada Center poll.
I. U.S. and Russian priorities for the bilateral agenda
- No significant developments.
North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs:
- See Cyber security section below.
Iran and its nuclear program:
- If Democratic candidate Joe Biden wins the 2020 U.S. presidential election, Washington may return to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action for Iran’s nuclear program, Chairman of the Russian Federation Council Foreign Affairs Committee Konstantin Kosachev said Nov. 5. According to him, however, it doesn’t mean that the U.S. will ease its pressure on Iran. (TASS, 11.05.20)
- The Russian contractor approved for the implementation of Iran’s Sirik Power Plant project in southern Hormozgan Province is going to begin working on the project in the near future, an official with the Thermal Power Plant Holding said. (Teheran Times, 10.31.20)
New Cold War/saber rattling:
- No significant developments.
- No significant developments.
- No significant developments.
Nuclear arms control:
- No significant developments.
- Authorities in Austria have detained suspects from Russia’s North Caucasus region as part of an investigation into the deadly shooting rampage in Vienna, Russia’s ambassador in Vienna said Nov. 3. The only known gunman in the Nov. 2 evening shooting spree across Vienna that killed four people and wounded 22 was an Islamic State group supporter, Austria’s interior ministry has said. A total of 14 suspects have been detained so far, the ministry said. Russian President Vladimir Putin on Nov. 3 called the Vienna shooting a “cruel and cynical” crime in a condolences telegram to the Austrian leadership. (The Moscow Times, 11.03.20, The Moscow Times, 11.03.20)
- Russia is prepared to extend a helping hand to the European countries in the struggle against terrorism, Russian Foreign Ministry Spokeswoman Maria Zakharova told a news briefing Nov. 5 following a string of terrorist attacks in Europe since the end of October. (TASS, 11.05.20)
Conflict in Syria:
- Russia, Iran and Turkey are working on the agenda for the next international high-level meeting on Syria in the Astana format, that was postponed amid the coronavirus pandemic, Foreign Ministry Spokeswoman Maria Zakharova told a briefing Nov. 5. (TASS, 11.05.20)
- A cyberespionage campaign has targeted IP-addresses belonging to internet service providers (ISPs) in Australia, Israel, Russia and defense contractors based in Russia and India. The attacks have been attributed to infrastructure and TTPs (Techniques, Tactics, and Procedures) previously associated with Hidden Cobra—an umbrella term used by the U.S. government to describe all North Korean state-sponsored hacking groups. (HackNews, 11.03.20)
U.S. presidential elections:
- The U.S. federal government’s top cybersecurity authority said there was no evidence of a major cyberattack on the U.S. elections. A senior CISA official described the election as “just another Tuesday” from a cybersecurity perspective. (The Washington Post, 11.04.20)
- U.S. Cyber Command and the National Security Agency have taken recent actions to ensure that foreign actors do not interfere in the 2020 election, including an operation in the past two weeks against Iran, U.S. officials said. (The Washington Post, 11.04.20)
- Russian State Duma Speaker Vyacheslav Volodin said the election proved that American democracy was not a standard to be followed, adding, “Nobody here would approve of such an approach.” (The Washington Post, 11.04.20)
- “It’s better for Russia if there is a decisive result, so that the loser will not resort to claims of foreign interference,” Konstantin Kosachev, a Putin ally who chairs a foreign affairs committee, said. “It’s time for America to return to the politics of sanity.” (TIME, 11.04.20)
- Leonid Slutsky, chairman of the lower-house State Duma’s International Affairs Committee: “As for Russian-American relations, we can’t expect any changes for the better if any of the candidates wins. That’s very unfortunate.” (The Moscow Times, 11.04.20)
- “There is no ‘best candidate’ for Russia in the United States,” Aleksei Pushkov, a political analyst and frequent critic of the West who is also a member of the upper house of parliament, wrote on Twitter. But Biden, he said, had “displayed anti-Russian reflexes more than once.” (RFE/RL, 11.04.20)
- Russia’s foreign ministry on Nov. 5 said outdated legislation and a lack of regulation had revealed flaws in the U.S. electoral system. (The Moscow Times, 11.05.20)
Energy exports from CIS:
- No significant developments.
U.S.-Russian economic ties:
- No significant developments.
U.S.-Russian relations in general:
- Edward J. Snowden said that he and his American wife were taking the step to seek Russian citizenship because they were expecting their first child. He described the move as a practical measure to give his family greater freedom crossing borders. (New York Times, 11.02.20)
II. Russia’s domestic policies
Domestic politics, economy and energy:
- Russia on Nov. 6 confirmed the record-breaking number of 20,582 new coronavirus cases and 378 deaths. (The Moscow Times, 11.06.20) 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’s healthcare and consumer protection watchdog believes that most of the country’s “imported” coronavirus cases came from Turkey. (The Moscow Times, 11.03.20)
- The share of Russians unwilling to vaccinate against COVID-19 has risen to 59 percent in October from nearly 54 percent in August, according to the Levada Center pollster. (The Moscow Times, 11.02.20)
- Between 30 percent and 40 percent of the COVID-19 polymerase chain reaction (PCR) tests performed in Russia could be giving false negative results because of the methodology being used, Russian Health Ministry chief pulmonologist Sergei Avdeev said. (The Moscow Times, 11.05.20)
- Russian lawmakers submitted legislation Nov. 5 that would grant former presidents lifetime immunity from criminal prosecution under Putin’s constitutional reforms, Interfax reported. Under current laws, presidents cannot be held criminally or administratively liable for crimes committed while serving their terms. (The Moscow Times, 11.05.20)
- Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov has denied a U.K. media report claiming Putin was planning to resign due to health conditions, assuring the Russian leader is in good health. (Al Jazeera, 11.06.20)
- The economic crisis sparked by the coronavirus pandemic is pushing the Kremlin to clamp down on tax avoidance and close an offshore loophole popular with Russian business, as the government scrambles to plug holes in its budget. Starting in January, Moscow says it will begin taxing at higher rates profits that companies transfer to lower-tax jurisdictions such as Cyprus, Malta and Luxembourg, marking some of the most aggressive steps taken by Moscow in recent years to claw back tax revenue. (Wall Street Journal, 11.05.20)
- Russia’s ruble sank against the dollar and the euro on Nov. 2 after a fall in the price of oil and rising nervousness ahead of the U.S. election triggered a shift away from the currency. The ruble fell by as much as 1.7 percent to 94.12 euros early on Nov. 2, the lowest level since December 2014. (Financial Times, 11.02.20)
- “2019 e-commerce sales as a share of retail sales in Russia reached just 6 percent versus 8 percent in Poland, 15 percent in U.S. and 28 percent in China,” said Oksana Mustiatsa, an e-commerce analyst with Sova Capital. (bne IntelliNews, 11.05.20)
- Putin has signed an executive order, On the Strategy for Developing the Russian Arctic Zone and Ensuring National Security until 2035, which foresees the construction of at least five new nuclear-powered icebreakers of the Project 22220 series, and three of the Project 10510 series. The vessels are needed to ensure year-round navigation along the Northern Sea Route. (World Nuclear News, 10.30.20)
- Russia’s Arctic Laptev Sea has not yet frozen for the first time since records began, according to the U.S. National Snow and Ice Data Center. (The Moscow Times, 11.02.20)
- The Moscow-based Memorial Human Rights Center issued an updated list of political prisoners in Russia on Oct. 30, the Day of Commemoration of the Victims of Political Repressions. According to the updated list, there are currently 362 political prisoners in Russia, of whom 297 were persecuted for their religious views and 65 for their political activities. That is up from 305 people listed as political prisoners last year, with 252 individuals persecuted for their religious views and 53 for political activities. (RFE/RL, 11.02.20)
- The frozen Russian Far Eastern port city of Magadan faces a problem: Nobody wants to run it. A special commission of regional officials set an Oct. 20 deadline for applicants for city manager—effectively, the mayor—to submit their proposals. By Oct. 23, they were supposed to have considered the applications. But there was nothing to consider. (RFE/RL, 11.04.20)
- Supporters of Russian nationalist groups have gathered in a Siberian city to protest against Putin as the country marked the annual National Unity Day holiday. Some 100 activists held the so-called Russian March in the city of Barnaul on Nov. 4, holding posters reading slogans such as “Russia is everything, anything else is nothing” and “Without Siberia, Russia is a dead land.” Police in Moscow detained at least 60 nationalists who attempted to stage street rallies known as the “Russian March.” (RFE/RL, 11.04.20, The Moscow Times, 11.04.20)
Defense and aerospace:
- In the next four years, Russia will complete the rearming of its Strategic Missile Force with Yars silo-based and mobile intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs). The first regiment armed with Yars road-mobile ICMBs assumed combat duty at the Teikovo missile division in central Russia in March 2011, and it was reported that the entire force is on schedule to receive the upgrade. “I believe everything is moving towards the situation that the old grouping will be fully rearmed with Yars missile systems by 2024,” chief designer of the Moscow Institute of Thermal Technology, the Yars developer, Yuri Solomonov, told TASS. (The National Interest, 11.03.20)
- Russia has surprised the world by announcing the successful test flight of a Cold War-era Tu-160M heavy strategic bomber equipped with new NK-32-02 engines. The Tupolev Tu-160M strategic bomber completed its maiden flight Nov. 3. (Defense Blog, 11.03.20)
- A former Russian deputy transport minister has acquired a controlling stake in weapons maker Kalashnikov. Alan Lushnikov, who served as deputy transport minister between 2017 and 2018, has acquired a 75 percent stake minus one share in Kalashnikov via a firm called TKH-Invest. (RFE/RL, 11.06.20)
Security, law-enforcement and justice:
- A Russian citizen charged in Sweden with the attempted murder of a blogger and outspoken critic of the authoritarian leader of Chechnya says he acted on orders he received from Chechen officials. As the trial started in Sweden on Nov. 2, the defendant, Ruslan Mamayev, testified that from the very beginning he secretly planned to fail when carrying out the assault against Tumso Abdurakhmanov to keep the Chechen officials who ordered the attack from turning on him. He added that he has since asked for political asylum in Sweden. (RFE/RL, 11.03.20)
- Russian authorities say police in the Republic of Tatarstan have shot dead a teenage boy allegedly involved in an attempted terrorist attack against a police station. In early hours of Oct. 30, a 16-year-old “tried to set fire” to a building of the police department in the town of Kukmor, “using an incendiary mixture,” according to the Investigative Committee. (RFE/RL, 10.30.20)
- Police in the Moscow region have detained a man suspected of murdering a Russian oligarch, Vladimir Marugov, nicknamed the “Sausage King,” with a crossbow while the meat tycoon was in the sauna at his house near the Russian capital. (RFE/RL, 10.30.20)
- Russian officials said Nov. 6 that metabolic problems and pancreatitis caused Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny to fall ill in August, ruling out findings by European labs that he was poisoned with the Soviet-designed nerve agent Novichok. (AFP, 11.06.20)
- Five alleged members of the Hizb ut-Tahrir Islamic group have been detained in Russia’s Republic of Tatarstan. The Federal Security Service said in a statement Nov. 6 that its officers, along with National Guard troops, detained five individuals suspected of propagating “terrorist ideas” among Tatarstan’s Muslims. (RFE/RL, 11.06.20)
III. Russia’s relations with other countries
Russia’s general foreign policy and relations with “far abroad” countries:
- Russian state arms seller Rosobornexport, which is part of the tech conglomerate Rostec, delivered military hardware worth $180 billion to its foreign customers over the past two decades. (The National Interest, 10.04.20)
- Today, there are approximately 67,000 Chechens in France, making up the largest community among the Chechen diaspora in Europe. Most of them live in Paris and the south of France. (The Moscow Times, 11.04.20)
- Europe’s football governing body UEFA might make Russia the sole host of the Euro 2020 football championship that was postponed by the coronavirus pandemic until 2021. (The Moscow Times, 11.03.20)
China-Russia: Allied or Aligned?
- China has suspended entry for Russians with valid visas and residence permits because of Russia’s spike in coronavirus cases, the Chinese Embassy in Moscow announced Nov. 5. China barred entry to all foreign nationals including Russians in March as the virus spread across the world. China, where COVID-19 first emerged late last year and which has largely brought its outbreak under control, had gradually eased these restrictions in recent months. (The Moscow Times, 11.06.20)
- Evgeny Minchenko, president of Minchenko Consulting, said: “In the case of a Trump victory, I think that the game of trying to make Russia a U.S. ally in the fight against China will continue.” (Vedomosti, 11.04.20)
- Oil supplies from Russia to China increased to 1.83 million barrels a day as of the end of September 2020, Argus price agency said Oct. 30. “Russia rank[ed] second” among suppliers of oil to China in that month, according to Argus. (TASS, 10.30.20)
War in Karabakh
- The Nagorno-Karabakh war “may be moving towards a potentially bloody battle for the city of Shusha (which Armenians call Shushi) deep inside the territory” with Azerbaijani forces reported to be no more than 3-4 kilometers away from the mountain fortress city, Carnegie Europe analyst Thomas de Waal warned. (bne IntelliNews, 11.06.20)
- Artillery strikes on civilians in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict could amount to war crimes, U.N. human rights chief Michelle Bachelet said Nov. 2. She also reiterated a call for Azerbaijan and Armenia to cease attacks on towns, schools and hospitals in the disputed mountain enclave. (bne IntelliNews, 11.03.20)
- Armenia has requested urgent talks with Russia over security assistance in response to intensified fighting with Azerbaijan over control of the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region. (Financial Times, 11.01.20)
- Russia said Oct. 31 it would provide “necessary” assistance to Yerevan in its conflict with Azerbaijan if fighting reached Armenian territory after its ally requested help. (The Moscow Times, 10.31.20)
- Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev said Nov. 1 there was no reason for Russia to intervene in the conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh because Baku is not threatening Armenian territory.. (AFP, 11.02.20)
- Military authorities in the breakaway region of Nagorno-Karabakh say 11 more soldiers have died in fighting with Azerbaijani forces despite a U.S.-brokered cease-fire. According to a list released by the military’s press service Nov. 2, those killed included a deputy commander of Nagorno-Karabakh’s Defense Army, Col. Artur Sarkisian. The military death toll for the enclave is now at 1,177 since the clashes erupted on Sept. 27. (RFE/RL, 11.02.20)
- Russia’s top diplomat said Nov. 3 that about 2,000 fighters from the Middle East have joined the fighting over Nagorno-Karabakh. “We are certainly worried about the internationalization of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict and the involvement of militants from the Middle East,” Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said. Lavrov added that Putin raised the issue in last week’s phone call with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. (AP, 11.03.20)
- Russia’s foreign ministry doesn’t rule out the danger of “outflow” mercenaries from Syria and Libya deployed in the Nagorno Karabakh conflict zone to Russia. “Of course, we cannot rule out such danger,” Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Oleg Syromolotov said. “There are no small things in the fight against terrorism. It’s important to analyze any risk, including potential and work on preventing it. The Russian law enforcement agencies are closely following the situation,” he said. (RIA Novosti, 10.30.20, Armenpress, 10.30.20)
- Two Ukrainian military servicemen were killed in action on the night of Oct. 30 in the Donbass. (Kyiv Post, 10.30.20)
- Vitaliy Markiv, Ukrainian-Italian dual citizen whose conviction by an Italian court over the death of an Italian journalist during Ukraine’s war with Russian-backed separatists has returned to Kyiv after having his sentence overturned. (RFE/RL, 11.04.20)
- A Russian suspect in the crash of flight MH17 saw no sign of the missile allegedly used to shoot down the plane, he said in a video played Nov. 3 at his trial. Oleg Pulatov is one of four men being tried in absentia. (The Moscow Times, 11.03.20)
- Western diplomats have urged Kyiv to bring the planners and perpetrators of an acid attack that led to the death of Ukrainian anti-corruption activist Kateryna Handzyuk to justice two years after the brazen crime. (RFE/RL, 11.04.20)
- Moscow has no information on the preparations for a Normandy Four meeting, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Andrei Rudenko said Nov. 2, commenting on a recent statement by Ukraine claiming that such a meeting is in the works. (TASS, 11.02.20)
- Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy has submitted a bill to dismiss all 15 judges of the Constitutional Court that will plunge Ukraine into a major constitutional crisis. The bill follows a controversial decision by the court to strike down key anti-corruption laws that were put in place at the insistence of Ukraine’s main donors, including the International Monetary Fund. The court nixed a law on Oct. 27 that makes lying on the mandatory annual electronic income declaration by state officials an offence amongst other things that was hailed at the time of its inception in 2016 as a major achievement in the fight against graft. (bne IntelliNews, 11.02.20)
- Foreign investment in Ukrainian government hryvnia bonds has dropped by almost one third since the start of the year, according to the National Bank of Ukraine. Foreigners currently hold 78.6 billion hryvnia, the equivalent of $2.7 billion, down 32 percent since January. Exports in September were up 2.9 percent year on year, hitting $4.2 billion, reports the National Bank of Ukraine. (Ukraine Business News, 11.02.20)
- Chinese company PowerChina and Ukrainian company WindFarm signed a contract on building a $1 billion wind farm with a capacity of 800 megawatts. (Kyiv Post, 11.02.20)
- The number of demonstrators that turned out for the weekend rally in Minsk Nov. 1 fell to only 10,000 as the protest movement loses some of its momentum. The weekly turnout for the “March against terror” was disappointing compared to the up to 200,000 demonstrators that marched a week earlier in the “People’s Ultimatum” demonstration. (bne IntelliNews, 11.02.20)
- European Union member states have agreed to slap sanctions on Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenka, along with 14 other Belarusian officials, in response to a brutal crackdown on postelection protests. (RFE/RL, 11.04.20)
- The OSCE says there is “overwhelming evidence” that Belarus’s Aug. 9 presidential election results were falsified and that “systematic” human rights violations have been committed by the country’s security forces in response to the peaceful demonstrations the vote sparked. (RFE/RL, 11.02.20)
- British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab is calling for new elections in Belarus after the publication of an independent report into the “falsified” presidential election in August and a brutal crackdown on postelection protests. (RFE/RL, 11.05.20)
- Belarus has partially closed all its land borders to foreigners in a move that prompted speculation the restrictions are politically motivated. (RFE/RL, 11.01.20)
- Belarus’ first nuclear power plant began operating Nov. 3, a project that has caused jitters in neighboring Lithuania, which immediately cut off electricity imports from the Belarusian plant. (Bellona, 11.04.20)
Russia’s other post-Soviet neighbors:
- Georgia’s ruling party, oligarch Bidzina Ivanishvili’s Georgian Dream, is all but certain to secure a majority in parliament following the country’s Oct. 31 general election, giving it a third consecutive mandate. The results by late on Nov. 1 translated into 75 sets for Georgian Dream, one short of a majority, but runoff voting will be held in 16 of the constituencies designed for majority voting, thus gaining the required seat is all but a formality. (bne IntelliNews, 11.02.20)
- Maia Sandu, the pro-EU candidate in the Moldovan presidential election, confirmed that she has the same goal as Renato Usatii, who came third in the first round with 17 percent of the votes, namely calling early elections. Sandu, who will face incumbent President Igor Dodon on Nov. 15, agreed to meet Usatii on Nov. 4 and is looking for common grounds to secure the support of his voters in the runoff. (bne IntelliNews, 11.04.20)
- Kyrgyzstan’s parliament elected an ally of acting leader Sadyr Japarov as speaker Nov. 4, in a move bolstering the populist politician’s position as he prepares for a January presidential election. (The Moscow Times, 11.04.20)
- Authorities in Turkmenistan, the only Central Asian nation that has not officially recorded a coronavirus case within its borders, have banned trips across the country without “extenuating” reasons. (RFE/RL, 11.03.20)
- Kazakhstan’s former Health Minister Elzhan Birtanov, who was removed from the post in June amid a surge in coronavirus cases and renewed lockdowns, has been arrested on embezzlement charges. (RFE/RL, 11.03.20)
- The Uzbek government has decided to cut natural-gas supplies to some small and medium-sized enterprises and other users in a bid to save energy for “socially important” facilities during the winter season. (RFE/RL, 11.03.20)
- No significant developments.