Russia in Review, Jan. 3-10, 2020
This Week’s Highlights
U.S., Canadian and U.K. officials believe a Ukrainian commercial aircraft that crashed shortly after takeoff from Tehran Jan. 8, killing all 176 people on board, was downed by a missile system fired by Iran, possibly by mistake. A U.S. official identified the weapon as a Russian-made Tor surface-to-air missile system, the Wall Street Journal reports. Franz Klintsevich, member of the defense committee in Russia’s upper house of parliament, said: “It looks a lot like [the result of an] external impact, indeed. But this requires verification. We must wait. … Looking for a Russian footprint in the Boeing crash is foolish,” The Moscow Times reports. According to Reuters, Iran denied that the airliner had been hit by a missile. Ukraine observed a day of national mourning on Jan. 9, RFE/RL reports.
Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu held telephone talks with Turkish national intelligence chief and chief of Iran’s general staff Hakan Fidan after the killing of Soleimani. Shoigu and Fidan discussed possible joint actions to reduce tensions, Reuters reports. Russia’s view is that the strike against Soleimani was illegal under international law, The Washington Post reports. Anatol Lieven of Georgetown University’s campus in Doha, said: “Already across most of the world, including virtually all my own students from the Middle East, Africa and South Asia, people see no difference between U.S. and Russian international behavior when it comes to aggression, illegality and immorality.”
French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian has warned that Iran could have nuclear weapons in one or two years if Tehran continues to violate JCPOA, according to RFE/RL. However, Russia’s Foreign Ministry said Jan. 6 that it saw no threat of nuclear weapons proliferation after Iran’s decision to abandon limitations on enriching uranium, Reuters reports.
The World Bank trimmed Russia’s forecast for this year by 0.1 percentage points to 1.6 percent from its previous outlook, but kept its 2021 forecast of 1.8 percent intact, The Moscow Times reports. The bank estimated Russia’s economy slowed down to 1.2 percent in 2019 over “softer-than-expected investment and trade, together with a continuation of international economic sanctions.”
Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko has slammed Gazprom for allegedly earning “three times as much in Belarus than in Germany” from gas sales amid the lack of agreement with Moscow on new oil and gas subsidies to Minsk, according to bne IntelliNews.
I. U.S. and Russian priorities for the bilateral agenda
Russian conscript Ramil Shamsutdinov who shot dead eight fellow soldiers at his army base last year said on Jan. 9 he had been left with no other course of action after conscripts turned his life into a living “hell.” According to Kommersant, Shamsutdinov and his victims all served in military unit No. 14258. The mission of unit No. 14258 is to provide security and logistical support to other units located in Gorny, including a 12th GUMO base, which stores and issues nuclear warheads. (Reuters, 01.09.20, Russia Matters, 01.09.20)
North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs:
No significant commentary.
Iran and its nuclear program:
French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian has warned that Iran could have nuclear weapons in one or two years if Tehran continues to violate a landmark nuclear accord with world powers. The country’s top diplomat made the statement ahead of a Jan. 10 emergency meeting of EU foreign ministers, which comes amid mounting tensions between Iran and the U.S. following the killing of top Iranian commander Qassem Soleimani and a subsequent Iranian missile attack on U.S.-led forces in Iraq. (RFE/RL, 01.10.20)
Russia’s Foreign Ministry said on Jan. 6 that it saw no threat of nuclear weapons proliferation after Iran’s decision to abandon limitations on enriching uranium. The ministry said that Russia remained fully committed to the Iran nuclear deal. (Reuters, 01.06.20)
U.S., Canadian and U.K. officials believe that a Ukrainian commercial aircraft that crashed shortly after takeoff from Tehran on Jan. 8, killing all 176 people on board, was downed by a missile system fired by Iran, possibly by mistake. The crash follows Iranian missile strikes against two military bases in Iraq, which Iran said were in retaliation for the U.S. killing of Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani last week. A U.S. official identified the weapon as a Russian-made Tor (NATO code: SA-15 Gauntlet) surface-to-air missile system. A U.S. official said that data showed the plane was airborne for two minutes when the heat signatures of two surface-to-air missiles were detected. Iran denied that the airliner had been hit by a missile. (Reuters, 01.10.20, Wall Street Journal, 01.09.20)
Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said on Jan. 10 that Moscow currently sees no grounds to blame Iran for the crash of the Ukrainian airliner, TASS reported. (RFE/RL, 01.10.20) Ukraine observed a day of national mourning on Jan. 9. Ukrainian Foreign Minister Vadym Prystayko said on Jan. 10 that investigators have so far found no evidence of a terror attack in fragments from the Ukrainian passenger airliner (RFE/RL, 01.09.20, RFE/RL, 01.10.20)
Franz Klintsevich, a member of the defense committee in Russia’s upper house of parliament, said: “It looks a lot like [the result of an] external impact, indeed. But this requires verification. We must wait. … Looking for a Russian footprint in the Boeing crash is foolish.” (The Moscow Times, 01.20.20)
In an address to the nation from the White House on Jan. 8, U.S. President Donald Trump said no Americans were killed or wounded when Iranian forces launched more than a dozen ballistic missiles against two military bases in Iraq. Defense Secretary Mark Esper said Iran launched 16 ballistic missiles, including 11 that landed at al-Asad air base and one in Irbil. “We knew, and the Iraqis told us, that this was coming many hours in advance,” said a senior U.S. administration official. The United States announced new sanctions on Jan. 10 on eight senior Iranian officials and that country’s steel and other metals industry, following this week’s Iranian missile strikes. (The Washington Post, 01.08.20, RFE/RL, 01.10.20)
The U.S. House of Representatives, as expected, on Jan. 9 passed a nonbinding resolution limiting U.S. President Donald Trump‘s ability to take military action against Iran. (RFE/RL, 01.09.20) Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Gen. Mark Milley said Jan. 6 a letter suggesting the U.S. would withdraw troops from Iraq was released by mistake and poorly worded, telling reporters “that’s not what’s happening.” But for over an hour, military officials in Washington and Baghdad were unable to offer a definitive answer about the letter’s veracity, and the lack of clarity fueled significant confusion about its meaning. The Pentagon said it plans to send B-52 bombers and more troops to the Mideast. (CNN, 01.06.20, Wall Street Journal, 01.06.20)
On Jan. 5, the Iraqi parliament passed a resolution to expel U.S. troops. (Wall Street Journal, 01.06.20)
Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu held telephone talks with Hakan Fidan, the Turkish national intelligence chief and chief of Iran’s general staff. They discussed possible joint actions to reduce tensions in the Middle East after the U.S. killing of Soleimani. (Reuters, 01.06.20)
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told a meeting of his security cabinet: “The assassination of Soleimani isn’t an Israeli event but an American event. We were not involved and should not be dragged into it.” (bne IntelliNews, 01.06.20) NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said: “This is a U.S. decision, it is not a decision taken by neither the global coalition nor NATO, but all allies are concerned about Iran’s destabilizing activities in the region, Iran’s support to different terrorist groups.” (bne IntelliNews, 01.06.20)
New Cold War/saber rattling:
A Russian navy ship “aggressively approached” a U.S. Navy destroyer in the North Arabian Sea on Jan. 9, the U.S. Navy’s Bahrain-based Fifth Fleet said in a statement on Jan. 10. (Reuters, 01.10.20)
No significant commentary.
No significant commentary.
Nuclear arms control:
No significant commentary.
No significant commentary.
Conflict in Syria:
Russian President Vladimir Putin made a surprise visit to Damascus, where he met with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and held consultations with Russian military officials on Jan 7. Putin and Assad have discussed what Interfax described as plans to eliminate terrorist groups in the Idlib Province. “The leaders heard military reports on development in various regions of the country,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said. “The president of Syria expressed his gratitude to Russia and the Russian military for assistance with combating terrorism and rebuilding peaceful life in Syria,” Peskov said. Putin’s last trip to Syria was in 2017. (RFE/RL, 01.07.20, The Washington Post, 01.07.20, Interfax, 01.07.20)
Russia and Turkey have announced a ceasefire in Syria’s Idlib province, paving the way for a pause in continuing government-led bombardment in the country’s last rebel-held stronghold, while allowing the delivery of humanitarian aid. (Al Jazeera, 01.09.20)
24,000 Syrian youngsters are now learning Russian at school after the country added the language of the government’s most powerful ally to the curriculum. (Reuters, 01.08.20)
No significant commentary.
American defenses have vastly improved in the four years since Russian hackers and trolls mounted a broad campaign to sway the 2016 presidential election. Yet interviews with dozens of officials and experts make clear that many of the vulnerabilities exploited by Moscow in 2016 remain. Most political campaigns are unwilling to spend what it takes to set up effective cyberdefenses. Millions of Americans are still primed to swallow fake news. And those charged with protecting American elections face the same central challenge they did four years ago: to spot and head off any attack before it can disrupt voting or sow doubts about the outcome. (New York Times, 01.10.20)
U.S. intelligence and law enforcement officials are assessing whether Russia is trying to undermine Joe Biden in its ongoing disinformation efforts with the former vice president still the front-runner in the race to challenge President Donald Trump. (Bloomberg, 01.10.20)
The Trump administration has for nearly two years ignored mounting evidence that Russian operatives and other foreign actors were deliberately targeting U.S. troops and veterans with online disinformation amplified on a massive scale, Vietnam Veterans of America said. The group asked Trump to intervene in a Dec. 18 letter because no federal agency responded to their evidence of foreign “fraudulent activities ranging from identity theft to election interference,” according to a copy of the letter obtained by The Post. (The Washington Post, 01.07.20)
Energy exports from CIS:
The presidents of Russia and Turkey officially launched on Jan. 8 the TurkStream natural gas pipeline designed to ship Russian gas to Turkey and markets in southeastern Europe. Gazprom started shipping about 3 billion cubic meters of gas to Bulgaria via TurkStream on Jan. 1. The $7.8 billion TurkStream pipeline will carry 31.5 billion cubic meters (bcm) of Russian natural gas annually to Turkey’s western province, with half of that volume to be further exported to the Balkans and Central Europe. Russia, which exported nearly 200 bcm to Europe in 2019, had been supplying gas to the Balkans and Turkey through an overland route transiting Ukraine, Moldova and Romania. (RFE/RL, 01.07.20, Oilprice, 01.08.20, The Moscow Times, 01.06.20)
Belarus restarted processing of Russian oil on Jan. 6 following a five-day suspension of crude shipments in a rumbling sovereignty tussle between the two post-Soviet neighbors. Russia suspended crude oil supplies to Belarus on Dec. 31, while maintaining shipments through the country’s pipelines to Europe, after contracts expired. Reduced shipments restarted on Jan. 4. Talks on restarting full shipments are continuing. Exports of oil products refined from Russian crude account for about 20 percent of Belarus’s gross domestic product. (Financial Times, 01.06.20)
The U.S.- and EU-backed Trans Adriatic Pipeline will launch later this year carrying Azerbaijani gas across Turkey to Greece, Albania and Italy. That pipeline has an initial capacity of 10 bcm that can be expanded to more than 20 bcm. Greece is completing an interconnector pipeline to Bulgaria that would enable Sofia to receive Azerbaijani gas and cut its dependence on Russia. (RFE/RL, 01.07.20)
U.S.-Russian economic ties:
No significant commentary.
U.S.-Russian relations in general:
When asked by the Pew Research Center whether they had confidence in U.S. President Donald Trump “to do the right thing regarding world affairs,” 20 percent of Russians answered in the affirmative compared to 19 percent in 2018 and 53 percent in 2017. In comparison, 44 percent of Ukrainians said they trust Trump “to do the right thing regarding world affairs” in 2019. Sixty percent of Russians had an unfavorable view of America, while 73 percent of Ukrainians have a favorable view of the U.S. When asked by Pew whether they had confidence in Russian President Vladimir Putin “to do the right thing regarding world affairs,” 74 percent of Russians answered in the affirmative and so did 61 percent of respondents in the Philippines, 62 percent in Bulgaria and 52 percent in Greece. In comparison, only 11 percent of Ukrainians, 28 percent of the French and 36 percent of Germans said they trust Putin “to do the right thing regarding world affairs” in 2019. The of Germans and French who trust Trump to do the right thing are even lower: 13 percent and 20 percent, respectively. Overall, Trump got the second lowest median in the 33-country poll: 29 percent, compared to Xi’s 28 percent and Putin’s 33 percent. Merkel and Macron both scored better with medians of 46 percent and 41 percent, respectively. (Russia Matters, 01.08.20)
In “Trump and His Generals: The Cost of Chaos,” Peter Bergen recounted how Michael Flynn told U.S. President Donald Trump on Jan. 27, 2017 that “President Putin called several days ago, but we haven’t been able to get it on your calendar yet.” Trump, upset by the response, lambasted Flynn. “Are you kidding me? Vladimir Putin tried to call me, and you didn’t put him through? What the hell were you thinking?” Trump said. Trump called Putin “the only man on earth who can destroy us” and later questioned his staff’s decision to hold off on the phone call. “What kind of bulls— is this? How is it possible that Putin calls me and you don’t put the call through? I don’t know what you guys are doing,” Trump privately told his senior staff members. (Business Insider, 01.02.20)
Prosecutors have called for former White House national security adviser Michael Flynn to be sentenced to up to six months in prison following his 2017 guilty plea to lying to the FBI about his contacts with Russia’s then-ambassador to Washington. (RFE/RL, 01.07.20)
A Russian court has extended the house arrest of U.S. investor Michael Calvey and his partner, French national Philippe Delpal, until Feb. 13. Calvey and several other executives and employees of the Russian-based private-equity group Baring Vostok were detained in Moscow in February last year and charged with financial fraud. They all deny any wrongdoing. (RFE/RL, 01.09.20)
Tremendous quantities of gas are intentionally burned off to make way for oil production. The problem is likely to get worse in the U.S., the number four flarer of gas behind Iran, Iraq and world-leader Russia. (Wall Street Journal, 01.10.20)
II. Russia’s relations with other countries
Russia’s general foreign policy and relations with “far abroad” countries:
Forces loyal to Libyan warlord Khalifa Haftar said they would not halt their campaign to drive the U.N.-backed government from Tripoli amid calls from Russia and Turkey for a ceasefire in the war-torn North Africa nation. After meeting in Istanbul on Jan. 8, Russian President Vladimir Putin and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan issued a statement saying they supported “the necessary measures to be taken for stabilizing the situation on the ground” in Libya. The proposed truce would start from midnight on Jan. 12, according to the statement. (RFE/RL, 01.10.20, RFE/RL, 01.08.20)
Russia has called for a U.N. Security Council meeting on Libya for Jan. 6, as Turkey has started deploying soldiers to the war-ravaged country to support the U.N.-recognized government in Tripoli. (RFE/RL, 01.06.20)
The Kremlin has announced that German Chancellor Angela Merkel has accepted an invitation from Russian President Vladimir Putin to visit Russia on Jan. 11. Putin’s press service said Jan. 6 that Putin and Merkel would discuss the current crisis in the Middle East. (RFE/RL, 01.06.20)
Iraq has resumed talks with Russia to buy its S-300 surface-to-air missile systems, a senior Iraqi lawmaker told the state-run RIA Novosti news agency following the U.S. killing of Qassem Soleimani and Iran’s retaliatory missile strikes there. (The Moscow Times, 01.10.20)
Russian state lender VTB has filed a lawsuit in Britain’s High Court against a Mozambican government company it lent hefty sums to as part of a project now at the center of a $2 billion debt scandal, an online court filing shows. The filing, dated Dec. 23, names as defendants the Mozambique state and Mozambique Asset Management, which took a $535 million loan from VTB as part of a costly project that U.S. authorities say was an elaborate front for a bribery and kickback scheme. (Reuters, 01.07.20)
China–Russia: Allied or Aligned?
The Russian and Chinese envoys at the U.N. say they oppose the New Year’s Eve attack on the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, but insist that a statement by the international body’s Security Council condemning it should address the subsequent U.S. killing of Iran’s top military commander. Their stance prompted the U.S. on Jan. 6 to accuse them of blocking a statement that emphasizes the inviolability of diplomatic and consular premises after Iran-backed Shi’ite militias attacked the U.S. Embassy compound in Iraq. (RFE/RL, 01.07.20)
The weak ruble—currently trading at 62 to the dollar, less than half its value five years ago—has made Russia one of the top three destinations worldwide for Chinese tourists, Russian officials say. State agency Rosturizm estimated more than 2 million Chinese tourists visited Russia last year—compared with just 158,000 a decade ago. (Financial Times, 01.07.20)
Northwest China‘s Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region saw 197.2 billion yuan ($28.31 billion) of imports and exports to member states of the Eurasian Economic Union in the first 11 months of 2019, up 6.8 percent year on year. (Xinhua, 01.04.20)
Ukraine’s military said on Jan. 6 that two of its soldiers were killed during the previous 24 hours while on a combat mission in the country’s eastern Donbass region. (RFE/RL, 01.06.20) Some 600 parishes in Ukraine belonging to the Orthodox church aligned with the Moscow Patriarchate have in one year switched over to the newly formed Orthodox Church of Ukraine. (RFE/RL, 01.06.20)
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy in a phone call informed U.S. Secretary of State Michael Pompeo about the plans to restore peace in Donbass. Pompeo emphasized the release of prisoners and welcomed the signing of an important contract for gas transit to Europe. (Interfax, 01.07.20)
Ukraine’s international reserves increased by 22 percent year to date to $25.3billion in 2019, according to the National Bank of Ukraine, which is the highest figure in the last 7 years. (bne IntelliNews, 01.09.20)
Russia‘s other post-Soviet neighbors:
A local legislature appealed on Jan. 9 to the leader of the breakaway Georgian region of Abkhazia to stand down as crowds of demonstrators were contesting election results, Russian state media reported. The state-run TASS news agency said 19 lawmakers voted for the president‘s resignation, four cast their vote against it, while one abstained from the voting. (The Moscow Times, 01.10.20)
Georgia’s government has revoked a contract to construct the nation’s first-ever deep-sea port that was touted locally as the project of the century and designed to turn Georgia into a global entrepot as part of China’s Belt and Road Initiative. Tbilisi now says it will be looking for a new investor to build the Anaklia port, but it’s not clear who might be willing to take on a $2.5 billion project laden with economic risks and mired in political controversy. (Eurasianet, 01.09.20) Following the Jan. 3 killing of Qassem Soleimani, the foreign ministries of both Armenia and Azerbaijan issued statements broadly supportive of Tehran (and implicitly critical of the U.S.) in near-identical language. (Eurasianet, 01.06.20)
Uzbekistan has signed contracts worth more than $1 billion for the supply of uranium to Japan, Kun.uz reported yesterday, without stating its source. The contracts were signed as part of the December visit of the president of Uzbekistan, Shavkat Mirziyoyev, to Japan. (World Nuclear News, 01.08.20)
Tajik police have detained 27 people on suspicion of being members of the banned Muslim Brotherhood group. (RFE/RL, 01.07.20) Alice Wells, principal deputy assistant secretary for South and Central Asian Affairs at the U.S. State Department, told RFE/RL that Washington remains committed to working with Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan through the so-called C5+1 format. (RFE/RL, 01.08.20)
Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko has slammed Russia‘s natural gas monopoly Gazprom for allegedly earning “three times as much in Belarus than in Germany” from gas sales amid the lack of agreement with Moscow on new oil and gas subsidies to Minsk. Lukashenko said, “Is it normal? It is abnormal.” (bne IntelliNews, 01.09.20)
While Belarusian observers expect economic integration with Russia to continue, they remain skeptical about the prospects for a full-blown political union—not least because it would probably spell the end of Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko’s reign. “It’s a very nervous situation, because no one knows where we are going,” said Alexander Feduta, a former adviser to Lukashenko, who subsequently became an opposition activist. (Financial Times, 01.06.20)
III. Russia’s domestic policies
Domestic politics, economy and energy:
The Russian economy is expected to grow by 1.6 percent in 2020 and by 1.8 percent in 2021, the World Bank said in its latest forecast on Jan. 8. The multilateral development bank trimmed Russia’s forecast for this year by 0.1 percentage points from its previous outlook, but kept its 2021 forecast intact. The bank estimated Russia’s economy slowed down to 1.2 percent in 2019 over “softer-than-expected investment and trade, together with a continuation of international economic sanctions.” (The Moscow Times, 01.09.20)
Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev has approved a national action plan for the first phase of adapting to climate change. It says Russia‘s federal government must adopt measures to cope with climate change by the end of September 2020. According to the document, dangers posed by climate change to Russian regions include an increased frequency of droughts, floods and wildfires, deteriorating permafrost in the northern regions and the spread of infectious and parasitic diseases. (RFE/RL, 01.06.20)
A single generation of oligarchs in their late sixties or early seventies control vast swaths of Russia’s $1.7 trillion economy. Tycoons whose wealth depends on how successfully they snapped up plum industrial assets in the 1990s through controversial rigged auctions, murky bank loans or straightforward theft, and then how deftly they protected their gains through political maneuvering and relations with the Kremlin, must soon contemplate how to pass on their empires. (Financial Times, 01.08.20)
Defense and aerospace:
Russian President Vladimir Putin on Jan. 9 oversaw military exercises from a naval vessel in the Black Sea near Crimea, including the test launch of a hypersonic air-launched Kinzhal missile, the Kremlin said. (Reuters, 01.09.20)
According to the press department of the Russian Defense Ministry, the Strategic Rocket Forces conducted five ICBM launches in 2019—three from Plesetsk and two from Kapustin Yar. In 2020, the Rocket Forces are planning to conduct six ICBM launches, five of them from Plesetsk. (Russian strategic nuclear forces, 01.07.20)
St. Petersburg’s Sogaz clinic, which is run and partly owned by people with ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin, has provided medical treatment to Russian mercenaries injured abroad, according to three people with knowledge of military contractors being treated, a clinic employee, a reporter’s witness account and company records. (Reuters, 01.07.20)
Security, law-enforcement and justice:
Russia’s view is that the strike on Qassem Soleimani was illegal under international law, because it took place without the permission of the host country and involved the killing of a senior official in a U.N. member state. The subtext of its message is about U.S. hypocrisy when it condemns Russian breaches of international law. Anatol Lieven of Georgetown University’s campus in Doha, Qatar, said: “Already across most of the world, including virtually all my own students from the Middle East, Africa and South Asia, people see no difference between U.S. and Russian international behavior when it comes to aggression, illegality and immorality.” (The Washington Post, 01.06.20)