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Russia in Review, Dec. 18, 2020-Jan. 8, 2021

  • January 09, 2021

This Week’s Highlights

  • Russian President Vladimir Putin has made no statement on the unprecedented chaos in the United States, The Moscow Times reports. However, Konstantin Kosachyov, the chair of the Russian upper house’s foreign affairs committee, weighed in, claiming, “The celebration of democracy has ended. It has, unfortunately, hit rock bottom, and I say this without a hint of gloating,” AFP reports, while his counterpart in the Duma Leonid Slutsky said, “The boomerang of the color revolutions is turning back on the United States.”
  • Russia, which the Trump administration had subsumed into the National Security Council’s directorate for European affairs, will again be given its own senior director, Andrea Kendall-Taylor, in Biden’s National Security Council. Additionally, at the State Department, longtime diplomat Wendy Sherman will be reportedly nominated to serve as Deputy Secretary of State, while Victoria Nuland will be nominated for the role of Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs, Politico reports.
  • U.S. President-elect Joe Biden’s incoming national security adviser Jake Sullivan said that the new administration would move quickly to renew New START, even while seeking to make Russian President Vladimir Putin pay for what appeared to be the largest-ever hacking of United States government networks, according to the New York Times.
  • U.S. security agencies have said that Russia was likely behind a massive cyber espionage campaign uncovered late last year, the Financial Times reports, but described the motivation for the attacks as “an intelligence gathering effort” rather than for the purpose of data manipulation or other more destructive efforts. Russia has denied any involvement. Meanwhile, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has approved the establishment of a department bureau to counter cyber-security threats, including threats from Russia, according to the State Department.
  • Russian Ambassador to China Andrei Denisov said, “The cooperation between Russia and China is of a more expansive and deeper nature than a relationship between members of military-political alliances,” TASS reports, while Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said, “There is no end to China-Russia strategic cooperation, there are no limits.”
  • Putin’s press secretary Dmitry Peskov, referring to events in Belarus this year, said, “Ukraine has gone past the red line,” according to Belarusian news site Reformation. Peskov also said Putin won’t shoot himself in the foot over crossing of Russia’s redlines. “U.S. actions have led to a situation where there is no red line left in international politics,” in Peskov’s view. 

 

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

Nuclear security:

  • Russian hackers may have piggybacked on a tool developed by JetBrains, which is based in the Czech Republic, to gain access to federal government and private sector systems in the U.S. The company counts Siemens, a major supplier of technology in nuclear plants, as a customer. A number of U.S. government agencies, agencies including the Department of Homeland Security, the Department of Defense and the Energy Department’s National Nuclear Security Administration have confirmed they were affected by the attack, with hackers potentially present in these systems since March 2020. The Russian government has denied involvement. (New York Times, 01.06.21, The Hill, 01.05.21)

North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs:

  • Kim Jong Un teased the possibility of improved relations with South Korea and vowed to expand “external relations.” It was unclear if “external relations” referred to the United States and South Korea or China and Russia, which both have strong ties with Pyongyang. (Japan Times, 01.08.21)

Iran and its nuclear program:

  • Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said: “The Iranians indicate their interest, firstly, in receiving economic gains from the [JCPOA] deal, which they have been deprived of, especially after the Trump administration quit the JCPOA in May 2018. As I understand, other aspects of this vast agenda, which our Western colleagues are talking about, are being rejected by Tehran. Generally, I am inclined to admit that the Iranians have their logic.” (Interfax, 12.24.20)
  • Britain, France and Germany have called on Iran to reverse its decision to restart uranium enrichment at the 20 percent level, describing the move as “a serious negative development” in violation of the JCPOA. (RFE/RL, 01.06.21)

Great Power competition/New Cold War/saber rattling:

  • The Trump administration on Dec. 21 named 103 Chinese and Russian companies that will face restrictions on purchases of American goods and technology, as it continues to clamp down on commercial and technological ties with China in U.S. President Donald Trump’s final weeks in office. The new list contains 58 Chinese and 45 Russian companies, including some subsidiaries of China’s state-owned airplane manufacturer. Exporters can obtain a license to continue selling products to the firms, but most of these applications are denied. (New York Times, 12.21.20)
  • “We want to stay in great-power competition. You’re going to have great-power competition. That’s the nature of the world, right. Go back five-ten thousand years in human history. Great powers are going to compete against each other in a lot of different spaces. So that’s okay. There’s nothing necessarily wrong with that. But make sure it stays a great-power competition and it doesn’t shift to great-power conflict or great-power war” chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark Milley said Dec. 2 when asked about the state of so-called great-power competition with Russia and China. (The National Interest, 12.23.20)
  • NATO says it scrambled its air forces across Europe more than 400 times in 2020 to intercept unknown aircraft—mainly from Russia—approaching the alliance’s airspace. The alliance said in a statement Dec. 28 that almost 90 percent of the missions were in response to flights by Russian military aircraft. The overall total is a slight increase from the previous year. (RFE/RL, 12.29.20)
  • Japanese Air Self-Defense Force fighter jets intercepted groups of Russian and Chinese bombers on a joint patrol mission over the Western Pacific Dec. 22. A statement by Japan’s Defense Ministry said that two Russian Tu-95MS Bear-H and four Chinese H-6K Badger long-range bombers remained in international airspace and flew over the Sea of Japan and the East China Sea before they were intercepted by Japanese fighter jets. (Defense Blog, 12.23.20)
  • Russia says it has given a Bulgarian diplomat 72 hours to leave the country following the expulsion of its military attaché in Sofia. In a Dec. 28 press release, the Russian Foreign Ministry said it had sent the Bulgarian ambassador to Moscow a note announcing that the assistant to Bulgaria’s military attaché had been declared “persona non-grata” in response to the “unjustified” removal of a Russian diplomat earlier in December. (RFE/RL, 12.28.20, RFE/RL, 12.26.20)
  • Moscow says it has added several senior German security officials to its list of those barred from the country in response to the EU’s decision to place travel bans on Russian officials over a 2015 hacking attack on the German parliament. The Russian Foreign Ministry did not name the individuals added to the list on Dec. 29, saying “the new persons involved in the Russian stop-list have been elected senior officials of the German security and intelligence agencies that are part of the system of the German Defense Ministry.” (RFE/RL, 12.29.20)
  • Russia says it has expanded its list of British citizens barred from entering the country in response to London’s “unconstructive and unfriendly” decision to sanction Russian officials over the poisoning of Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny. (RFE/RL, 12.30.20)
  • Trump was briefed in December about intelligence reports that China had offered to pay bounties to fighters in Afghanistan who attacked American soldiers there, but the information was uncorroborated and comes months after Trump dismissed as a “hoax” a CIA assessment that Russia had paid for such attacks. The information was included in the president’s written briefing on Dec. 17 and relayed verbally by the national security adviser, Robert C. O’Brien. (New York Times, 12.30.20)

NATO-Russia relations:

  • No significant developments.

Missile defense:

  • No significant developments.

Nuclear arms control:

  • U.S. President-elect Joe Biden’s incoming national security adviser Jake Sullivan said on Jan. 3 that the new administration would move quickly to renew New START, even while seeking to make Putin pay for what appeared to be the largest-ever hacking of United States government networks. Sullivan cited arms control as one of the few areas where Moscow and the new administration could cooperate. So far, there have been no discussions between Biden’s representatives and the Russians about the treaty, transition officials said, because of what Sullivan referred to as the tradition of “one president at a time.” (New York Times, 01.03.20)
  • Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said: “The New START is a result of joint efforts and joint work, and this is one of the few documents existing in relations between Russia and the U.S. that, as acknowledged by those who deal with the matter professionally, has not yet exhausted its resource and can actually continue to serve both Russian and U.S. national interests.” (Interfax, 12.24.20)
  • “A major instrument of implementing our proposals might be created by taking mutual verification measures regarding the weapon systems causing concerns on either side [Russia finds worrisome the universal launchers Mk-41 in Romania and Poland, and the United States, the 9M729 missiles],” Russian Deputy Defense Minister Alexander Fomin said. (TASS, 12.27.20)
  • “We hope that the [Open Skies] treaty will nevertheless retain its positive potential. Future policies regarding the Open Skies treaty will be determined in accordance with the readiness of other signatories to guarantee they will refrain from passing to the American side the information gathered as a result of monitoring flights over Russia’s territory. We will keep a close watch on the situation involving the Open Skies Treaty and take decisions proceeding from the interests of national security,” Fomin said. (TASS, 12.27.20)
  • The incoming Biden administration is planning a review of the nation’s $1.2 trillion nuclear-modernization program with an eye toward trimming funding for nuclear weapons and reducing their role in Pentagon strategy. The new administration is also likely to review the Pentagon’s decision to develop a new land-based intercontinental ballistic missile, which is estimated to cost more than $100 billion when its warhead is included, some former officials said. (Wall Street Journal, 12.24.20)

Counter-terrorism:

  • No significant developments.

Conflict in Syria:

  • The Russian military said three of its troops were wounded on Dec. 29 in an attack by militants in northwestern Syria. The attack happened while the Russian troops were on patrol near the settlement of Trumba in Idlib and Turkish troops were pulling out of the area. A Russian military base in northeastern Syria was then targeted at dawn on Jan. 2, for which the al-Qaeda affiliated Guardians of Religion Organization have claimed responsibility. According to local media reports, two Russians were injured. (AP, 12.29.20, Middle East Monitor, 01.02.21, Kurdistan24, 01.01.21)
  • Russia has sent additional military police units to the Raqqa province of northern Syria amid a flare-up in fighting between rebel groups there, Kommersant reported Dec. 28, citing a top Russian official in Syria. (The Moscow Times, 12.28.20)
  • The practice of the past few years has shown that the beginning of the military operation in Syria was a right decision, Putin said. “We felt back then that there was a growing terrorist threat, a terrorist threat from Syria, as militant groups had occupied almost the entire Syrian territory and were getting entrenched in Syria,” he said. “It wasn’t my own sympathies and antipathies, but the interests of the Russian state,” Putin said in describing things he was guided by when making decisions on Russian actions with regard to Syria. (Interfax, 01.06.21)
  • Russia expects that participants of the upcoming session of the Syrian Constitutional Committee in Geneva will be able to begin the substantive work on the text of the country’s constitution, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said during a press conference Dec. 23. (TASS, 12.23.20)
  • All Russian children who were transported back home from Syrian refugee camps earlier were handed over to their closest relatives, the press service of the Russian Commissioner for Children’s Rights Anna Kuznetsova said. (TASS, 12.23.20)

Cyber security:

  • U.S. security agencies have said that Russia was likely behind a massive cyber espionage campaign uncovered late last year, contradicting earlier statements from Trump, who played down the possibility of Moscow’s involvement. In a joint statement on Jan. 5, the FBI, the National Security Agency, the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence described the motivation for the attacks as “an intelligence gathering effort” rather than for the purpose of data manipulation or other more destructive efforts. Russia has denied any involvement. (Financial Times, 01.05.21)
    • Interviews with key players investigating what intelligence agencies believe to be an operation by Russia’s SVR intelligence service revealed these points: The breach is far broader than first believed. The hackers managed their intrusion from servers inside the United States. “Early warning” sensors placed by Cyber Command and the National Security Agency deep inside foreign networks to detect brewing attacks clearly failed. (New York Times, 01.02.21)
    • Russian government hackers engaged in a sweeping series of breaches of government and private-sector networks have been able to penetrate deeper into Microsoft’s systems than previously known, gaining access to potentially valuable source code, the tech giant said Dec. 31. (The Washington Post, 12.31.20)
  • U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has approved the establishment of a department bureau to counter cyber-security threats. “The need to reorganize and resource America’s cyberspace and emerging technology security diplomacy through the creation of CSET is critical, as the challenges to U.S. national security presented by China, Russia, Iran, North Korea and other cyber and emerging technology competitors and adversaries have only increased since the Department notified Congress in June 2019 of its intent to create CSET,” according to a State Department statement. (Yonhap, 01.07.21)
  • A 2012 article in an official Russian military journal said that the “complete destruction of the information infrastructures” of the U.S. or Russia could be carried out by just one battalion of 600 “info warriors” at a price tag of $100 million. (Wall Street Journal, 01.02.21)
  • Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said: “We are much more concerned about the earlier effort of certain Washington officials to implant the issue of the so-called malicious activity in cyberspace in the context of their nuclear policy. The effort has extremely dangerous consequences, this is a manifestation of Washington’s readiness to continuously lower the threshold for using nuclear weapons.” (Interfax, 12.24.20)
  • Fugitive U.S. whistleblower Edward Snowden said Jan. 4 he hoped the British refusal to extradite Julian Assange would mark “the end” of attempts to see the WikiLeaks founder face espionage charges in the United States. (The Moscow Times, 01.04.21)
  • A highly skilled Russian hacker for hire who breached the networks of JPMorgan Chase, the Wall Street Journal and other major institutions was sentenced to a dozen years in federal prison on Jan. 7. Andrei Tyurin pleaded guilty to wire fraud, conspiracy and bank fraud charges in 2019. He was sentenced to 12 years in prison by U.S. District Judge Laura Taylor Swain, and he will be removed from the United States upon his release. (The Washington Post, 01.08.21)
  • The FBI has concluded that Iran was behind online efforts in December to incite lethal violence against the bureau’s director, a former top U.S. cyber expert and multiple state elections officials who have refuted claims of widespread voter fraud promoted by Trump and his allies, according to federal and state officials on Dec. 22. The creators used an English version of a Russian search engine. As of Dec. 22 the list was still accessible on Parler, a social media platform favored by conservatives, and on the Russian site V-Kontakte. (The Washington Post, 12.22.20)

Elections interference:

  • In a sweeping act of clemency, Trump pardoned George Papadopoulos, a former low-level campaign adviser, who was convicted of making false statements to investigators. Trump also pardoned Alex van der Zwaan, a former lawyer who lied to investigators about his contacts with Rick Gates, a former senior adviser to Trump. Trump then pardoned Paul Manafort, his former campaign manager, and longtime confidant Roger Stone, who were both convicted of crimes relating to the Mueller investigation into Trump’s ties to Russia.  (Financial Times, 12.23.20, Financial Times, 12.23.20)

Energy exports from CIS:

  • Republicans in the U.S. Senate have rebuffed the outgoing U.S. president’s attempt to veto this year’s $740 billion defense spending bill. The House of Representatives already voted for the veto override, making the Senate vote the final hurdle for the bill to become law. The bill introduces new sanctions on Nord Stream 2 and the Turk Stream pipeline. The bill also provides $250 million in military aid to Ukraine, less than the $300 million allocated in 2020. (Financial Times, 01.01.21, Atlantic Council, 01.02.21, Kyiv Post, 01.02.21)
    • The Kremlin has said it does not rule out delays to the completion of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline in light of the threat of new U.S. sanctions. (RFE/RL, 12.24.20)
  • Russia and Kazakhstan will increase oil production in February and March at the expense of Saudi Arabia as Riyadh seeks to keep the OPEC+ alliance together and maintain a tighter oil market as a resurgent pandemic cools demand. Russia and Kazakhstan had been pushing OPEC+ during their latest meeting that began on Jan. 4 to increase total oil output in February by another 500,000 barrels a day. However, Saudi Arabia opposed the idea amid concern a new strain of the coronavirus could force some countries to reimpose lockdowns, curbing demand and hurting prices. (RFE/RL, 01.05.21)
  • Gazprom produced 452.7 billion cubic meters (bcm) of gas in 2020. At the end of 2019, the company’s production amounted to 500.1 bcm of gas. Thus, Gazprom’s production in 2020 decreased by 9.48 percent, and exports by 10 percent. (TASS, 01.02.21)
  • Transit of Russian gas to Europe through the Gas Transmission System Operator of Ukraine amounted to 55.8 billion cubic meters in 2020, which is 38 percent lower than the previous year. (TASS, 01.02.21)
  • Serbian President Alexander Vučić opened on Jan. 1 Serbia’s 403 kilometer extension of the Balkan Stream natural-gas pipeline. Fuel for the line comes from Anapa, Russia, and then flows 930 kilometers across the Black Sea in TurkStream. Separately, Azeri gas has started moving through the new Trans Adriatic Pipeline, Interfax-Azerbaijan reports. (Ukraine Business News, 01.04.21)
  • Commodity trader Trafigura has acquired 10 percent of Rosneft’s giant Arctic oil project JPMorgan has estimated the Vostok Oil project could require up to $150 billion of capital expenditure over the next 15 years but could ultimately provide up to 2 million barrels a day in crude oil production as well as substantial volumes of liquefied natural gas. (Financial Times, 12.30.20)

U.S.-Russian economic ties:

  • U.S. Ambassador to Russia John Sullivan said: “We now have over 1,000 U.S. companies doing business here in Russia. We did not have 1,000 U.S. companies doing business in the Soviet Union. People-to-people exchanges, cultural exchanges, have grown and prospered because of the relationship between our peoples.” (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, 12.19.20)

U.S.-Russian relations in general:

  • Putin has made no statement on the unprecedented chaos in the United States. (The Moscow Times, 01.07.21)
    • “The electoral system in the United States is archaic, it does not meet modern democratic standards … and the American media have become an instrument of political struggle,” Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said. “This is largely the reason for the split in society now observed in the United States.” (AFP, 01.07.21)
    • “The losing side has more than enough grounds to accuse the winner of falsifications—it is clear that American democracy is limping on both feet,” Konstantin Kosachyov, the chair of the Russian upper house’s foreign affairs committee, said in a post on Facebook. “The celebration of democracy has ended. It has, unfortunately, hit rock bottom, and I say this without a hint of gloating.” (AFP, 01.07.21)
    • “The United States certainly cannot now impose electoral standards on other countries and claim to be the world’s ‘beacon of democracy,'” the foreign affairs chief in Russia’s lower house, Leonid Slutsky, told Russian news agencies. “The boomerang of the color revolutions is turning back on the United States,” Slutsky said. (AFP, 01.07.21)
  • At the State Department, longtime diplomat Wendy Sherman will be nominated to serve as Secretary of State-designee Tony Blinken’s deputy, according to two people close to the transition. Another veteran diplomat, Victoria Nuland, will be nominated for the role of Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs. (Politico, 01.05.21)
  • The incoming Biden administration plans to restructure and expand the operations of the White House National Security Council. Russia, which the Trump administration had subsumed into the NSC directorate for European affairs, will again be given its own NSC senior director. That director would be Andrea Kendall-Taylor, who will be serving as the Senior Director for Russia and Central Asia. (The Washington Post, 01.08.21, Biden-Harris Transition, 01.08.21) 
  • Trump’s outgoing administration is planning to close the two remaining U.S. consulates in Russia, the State Department confirmed Dec. 19. The U.S. will close its consulate in the Far Eastern city of Vladivostok and suspend operations at its post in Yekaterinburg. Russian visa restrictions for U.S. diplomatic personnel forced the closure of two consulates, the U.S. ambassador said. (The Moscow Times, 12.21.20)
    • Under caps established under the retaliatory punishments, Russia and the United States are both allowed to staff their embassies and consulates with 455 people, including local hires. In reality, the Russians have almost 430 people in their U.S. missions, while the United States is down to about 320. (The Washington Post, 12.24.20)
    • U.S. Rep. Gregory Meeks, now the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, rebuked the Trump administration’s decisions to close the last two U.S. consulates in Russia and urged the State Department to reverse course and keep the consulates open, even amid heightened tensions between Washington and Moscow. “I generally, as a rule, want to see consulates open. I believe in diplomacy,” Meeks said. (Foreign Policy, 01.04.21)
  • Russia hopes that a face-to-face summit of the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council will be held soon, Lavrov said. “Of course, it is possible to conduct it [the summit] in a video format but we are convinced that considering the importance and complexity of accumulated problems, a face-to-face meeting is needed. I hope we will hold it as soon as possible,” he said. “Without a doubt, one of the tasks will be a discussion of the situation with strategic stability where the U.S. destroyed practically all mechanisms that at least in some way controlled armaments,” Lavrov added. (TASS, 12.25.20)
  • Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov has accused Biden’s incoming administration of “Russophobia.” Ryabkov said: “Especially as I am not sure that those who might be responsible for Russia after Jan. 20 are inclined and ready to seriously start strengthening a healthy foundation. I am not speaking of normalizing relations; I am speaking of a healthy foundation of dialogue channels or at least attempts at finding a common denominator in particular situations. We are moving from bad to worse. The trend has been highly characteristic of the past four years and there is no feeling so far that it has run its course and is being replaced with something else, something more distinct and less one-dimensional.” (Interfax, 12.24.20, RFE/RL, 12.23.20)
  • Russia’s FSB says it has cut off an international drug-smuggling network through a collaboration with the United States, culminating in the seizure of about 1 billion rubles ($13.6 million) worth of cocaine. The FSB said in a statement Dec. 29 that the drug network stretched from South America to Russia, before the drugs were trafficked around Europe. “As a result of a joint operation with foreign partners, at least 330 kilograms of cocaine were seized from illicit trafficking,” the FSB said of the rare example of coordination between Russian and American drug enforcement agencies. (RFE/RL, 12.29.20)
  • Putin has sent wishes of Happy New Year and Merry Christmas to ex-Prime Ministers of Japan and Italy Shinzo Abe and Silvio Berlusconi, former U.S. President George Bush, former Presidents of Armenia Robert Kocharyan and Serzh Sargsyan, ex-Prime Minister of Italy and former President of the European Commission Romano Prodi, ex-President of France Nicolas Sarkozy, former Prime Minister of France Francois Fillon, ex-President of Finland Tarja Halonen, former King of Spain Juan Carlos I and former German Chancellor Gerhard Schroder. (TASS, 12.30.20)

 

II. Russia’s domestic policies

Domestic politics, economy and energy:

  • Russia on Jan. 8 registered 23,652 new COVID-19 cases in the past 24 hours, taking its total to 3,355,794, the country’s COVID-19 response center said in a statement. (Xinhua, 01.08.21) 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 state statistical agency has released new figures indicating that the death toll from COVID-19 is more than three times as high as officially reported. Russia has reported more than three million cases of infection, making it the world’s fourth-hardest-hit country, and 55,827 deaths, which ranks it No. 8 worldwide for the highest number of deaths from the virus. (New York Times, 12.29.20)
  • Russia’s extra state spending to support the economy this year reached 4.5 percent of gross domestic product and will shrink to 1 percent of GDP in 2021, Russian Finance Minister Anton Siluanov said Dec. 29. (Reuters, 12.29.20)
  • The Central Bank of Russia at the last policy meeting of 2020 resolved to maintain the key interest rate unchanged at 4.25 percent. The regulator had previously kept the rate flat in September and October as well. (bne IntelliNews, 12.20.20)
  • The seasonally adjusted IHS Markit Russia Manufacturing PMI for December was up at 49.7 in December from 46.3 in November and almost back to the 50 no-change mark as Russia’s half-hearted economic recovery continues. (bne IntelliNews, 12.30.20)
  • Putin signed a bill into law that allows former presidents to become senators for life when they leave office. (The Moscow Times, 12.20.20)
  • Russian lawmakers took first steps Dec. 23 to formally allow Putin to stay in power until 2036. A bill submitted to Russian parliament last month officially resets the number of terms served by current and former presidents. (The Moscow Times, 12.23.20)
  • Putin has signed into law a raft of legislation that human rights watchdogs and opposition politicians have said will undermine democratic processes. The controversial legislation included an amendment to a law that allows individuals and public entities to be recognized as foreign agents. (RFE/RL, 12.30.20)
  • The Levada Center has released the results of its latest annual poll on the most significant events of the past year, and, predictably, the global coronavirus outbreak tops the list ( 39 percent). When it comes to the “Person of 2020,” the leading troika includes Putin (33 percent), Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin (13 percent) and Belarussian leader Alexander Lukashenko (8 percent) In contrast, only about one percent of Russians see U.S. President-elect Joe Biden as the person of the year, while 3 percent view current U.S. President Donald Trump as such, according to the poll. Looking ahead, 60 percent of Russians hope 2021 will be better than 2020, but 25 percent either expect no change or believe the new year will be worse than the previous one, according to the Levada Center. (Russia Matters, 01.06.21) 
  • Europe had its hottest year ever recorded in 2020, while globally the year tied with 2016 as the warmest on record, a signal of the increasing impact of climate change on the planet. Parts of the Arctic and northern Siberia were more than 6 degrees Celsius warmer during 2020 than their historic average, according to the Copernicus data. A temperature record of 38 degrees Celsius was recorded in northern Russia, inside the Arctic Circle, in June. (Financial Times, 01.08.21)
  • Western European scientists are ringing the alarm as the Caspian Sea shrinks due to climate change, saying the falling water levels presage a fast-approaching ecocide and the loss of unique local species. By the end of the century, the lake is expected to shrink by about 25 percent, uncovering 93,000 square kilometers of dry land—comparable to the size of Portugal, according to scientists’ estimates. (The Moscow Times, 12.25.20)
  • Russian authorities said the fuel spill at an Arctic power station earlier in 2020 was the largest in world history, a top emergencies official said Dec. 24. Some 21,000 tons of oil poured into the surrounding ground and waterways near the city of Norilsk. (The Moscow Times, 12.24.20)

Defense and aerospace:

  • On Dec. 21, Putin signed out an order “On the Northern Fleet” recognizing it as “an inter-service strategic territorial large formation [obyedineniye / обьединение]” carrying out the missions of a military district. (Russian Defense Policy, 12.22.20)
  • On Dec. 15, the Barnaul missile division of Russia’s Strategic Missile Forces formally accepted for service its second Yars missile regiment. The news suggests that the regiment that received new missiles is the 480th regiment. (Russianforces.org, 12.15.20)
  • The first serial fifth-generation Su-57 fighter jet was shipped to the 929th flight test center in Akhtubinsk. Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu said 22 Su-57 are to be supplied by the end of 2024 and the number will grow to 76 by 2028. (TASS, 12.28.20)
  • The Military Academy of the General Staff of the Russian Armed Forces has embraced new two educational subjects, “Information Technologies” and “Electronic Education and Information Resources,” which have been designed on the base of modern communications development and experience gained during the counter-terror operation in Syria, according to the Russian Defense Ministry. (TASS, 12.23.20)

Security, law-enforcement and justice:

  • Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny and the investigative website Bellingcat have used data purchased on the black market to claim that a group of eight FSB agents with expertise in chemical weapons and medicine shadowed Navalny on 37 trips, including the day he was poisoned in Tomsk. Navalny on Dec. 21 released a recording of a 49-minute phone call he said he made to a chemical weapons expert for the FSB in which he pretended to be a senior security official and tricked the alleged spy into revealing new details of his poisoning. The man, purportedly FSB agent Konstantin Kudryavtsev, said FSB operatives had applied Novichok to “the so-called codpiece” along the seams of a blue pair of Navalny’s underpants. He said Navalny owed his survival to the quick-thinking pilots who landed the plane in nearby Omsk, where an ambulance crew gave him the drug atropine. (Financial Times, 12.22.20)
    • As Navalny’s suspended sentence for a 2014 fraud conviction was set to expire, Russia’s penitentiary service abruptly demanded he return to the country or receive a jail sentence in absentia. Then Russia announced new fraud charges against him that could see Navalny jailed for up to 10 years for allegedly misappropriating 356 million rubles ($4.8 million) from his Anti-Corruption Foundation. (Financial Times, 12.30.20)
    • Russia’s Investigative Committee has launched a criminal case against Navalny, accusing him of stealing hundreds of millions of rubles donated to his anti-corruption organization. (RFE/RL, 12.29.20)
  • Putin hailed the country’s “courageous” spies as he visited the headquarters of the Foreign Intelligence Service to mark its 100th birthday. (The Moscow Times, 12.20.20)
  • At least three people are dead, including two law enforcement officers, after a shoot-out in the capital of Russia’s North Caucasus region of Chechnya. Unknown assailants initiated the assault on police on Dec. 28, local media quoted sources as saying. Interfax and TASS said the attackers opened fire on police, while other media said they attacked the officers with knives as they tried to disarm the law enforcement officials. (RFE/RL, 12.28.20)
  • A vodka box stuffed with more than $1 million of Iranian cash was stolen from the Russian Foreign Ministry building last year, the government confirmed Dec. 24 following media reports. (The Moscow Times, 12.25.20)
  • The Moscow City Court has found Karina Tsurkan, an executive with energy holding company Inter RAO, guilty on charges of spying for Moldova, which she denies, and sentenced her to 15 years in prison. (RFE/RL, 12.29.20)
  • A Russian court has sentenced Mukhtar Ablyazov, the fugitive former head of Kazakhstan’s BTA Bank and an opposition politician, to 15 years in prison in absentia on embezzlement charges he has denied. (RFE/RL, 12.29.20)
  • Russia ranked third in the world in terms of CCTV cameras per 1,000 people. According to the study by the TelecomDaily information analytical agency, there are 93 cameras per 1,000 people in Russia. In terms of the number of cameras per 1,000 people, the U.S. ranks first (152.8 cameras), followed by China (143.6). (TASS, 12.25.20)

 

III. Russia’s relations with other countries

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

  • “It is the lines that run counter to our interests,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said when defining what constitutes red lines for Russia. “It is, of course, a red line,” he then said referring to events in Belarus this year. “Ukraine has gone past the red line … it is a tragedy what has happened in Ukraine … a tragedy for the entire Europe,” he said. He also said Putin won’t shoot himself in the foot over crossing of Russia’s red lines. “U.S. actions have led to a situation where there is no red line left in international politics,” Peskov said. (Reform.by, 01.05.21, MNA, 01.06.21)
  • Rosatom’s portfolio of foreign orders for the coming ten years will total $138 billion by the end of 2020, CEO of Russia’s state nuclear corporation Alexei Likhachev said. (TASS, 12.25.20)
  • Russia’s grain exports increased by 20 percent in 2020 compared with 2019 and amounted to 57.5 million tons as of Dec. 27, the Federal Service for Veterinary and Phytosanitary Surveillance said in a statement. Turkey was the biggest importer as it has purchased almost 11.3 million tons of Russian grain since the beginning of 2020. (TASS, 12.29.20)
  • Russia reportedly has deployed two Mi-8AMTSh Hipp military helicopters to the Central African Republic. On Dec. 25, the heavy-lift An-124 Ruslan (Condor) cargo plane delivered two Russian Mi-8AMTSh Hipp multipurpose helicopters to the Bangui M’poko International Airport in the Central African Republic. (Defense Blog, 12.25.20)
  • Russia’s government has declared two employees of the Colombian Embassy in Moscow “personae non gratae” following the expulsion of two Russian diplomats from the South American country due to what local media reported was espionage. (RFE/RL, 12.23.20)
  • Honda’s Russian subsidiary said it would stop supplying new cars to official dealers in Russia in 2022 as part of the company’s efforts to restructure its operations. (Reuters/Automotive News Europe, 12.30.20)
  • Russia has suspended its electronic visa system until further notice because of the coronavirus pandemic, tourism authorities have said. (The Moscow Times, 01.08.21)

China-Russia: Allied or Aligned?

  • Putin noted the rapid development of relations between Russia and China in his greeting forwarded to Chinese President Xi Jinping on the occasion of the New Year and upcoming Spring Festival. Putin has also acknowledged the stance of deepening interaction in all areas, including implementation of large-scale projects in the energy sector, in the conversation with Xi. (Interfax, 12.30.20, TASS, 12.28.20)
  • “In many areas, the cooperation between Russia and China is of a more expansive and deeper nature than a relationship between members of military-political alliances,” Russian Ambassador to China Andrei Denisov said. At the same time, Denisov pointed out that “we have come to a conclusion that a formal alliance, especially a military-political alliance, is not the best or the most optimal model of relations between Moscow and Beijing.” China and Russia are “independent international powers” that are against a bloc approach, he said. Denisov added that the structure of military blocs is unacceptable for equal relations and cooperation between Moscow and Beijing. “If we take a look at the alliances active in the modern world, such as NATO, the example is the most telling. No matter how much they declare equality between the members, in reality, we see that practically, one state dictates everything,” he stressed. (TASS, 12.29.20)
  • The Russia-China dialogue during the pandemic worked as a stabilizing factor for international relations, the Russian Foreign Ministry said in a commentary Dec. 29 devoted to the main foreign policy results of 2020. (TASS, 12.29.20)
  • First Deputy Minister of Far East and Arctic Development Alexander Krutikov said: “We emphasize that the Russian Federation is open to joint applied cooperation on the Northern Sea Route. We offer such opportunities not only to countries of Northern Europe but also to our colleagues from South Korea, Japan and China.” (Interfax, 12.28.20)
  • “The year 2021 is particularly important for China-Russia relations. Both countries are entering a new stage of development. There is no end to China-Russia strategic cooperation, there are no limits,” Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said. (TASS, 01.02.21)
  • According to China’s General Administration of Customs, from January to November 2020, bilateral trade between Russia and China decreased by 3 percent year-on-year, amounting to $97.38 billion. China remains top dog as Russia’s biggest trade partner and is on course to maintain the $100 billion trade turnover of recent years. The trade balance between Russia and China remains well balanced with $48.1 billion of Russian exports to China in November, which is only slightly down from the $49.8 billion in October and September and $50 billion to $53 billion per month in the second quarter. (TASS, 12.29.20, bne IntelliNews, 1.4.21)
  • Russia’s state-owned company Gazprom will ramp up its gas exports to China via the Power of Siberia pipeline, as the volumes of Russian gas supplies correspond to the contractual obligations for 2021 and exceed the daily amounts supplied to China under the contract in 2020 by several times, Gazprom said in a statement. (TASS, 01.04.21)
  • U.S. Ambassador to Russia John Sullivan on Russia and China: “Our approach is we treat both countries separately. We don’t consider them an alliance against the United States.” (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, 12.19.20)

Ukraine:

  • Ukraine’s president has ordered the suspension of Oleksandr Tupytsky, head of the constitutional court, for escalating a power struggle between the government and the constitutional court that has threatened anti-corruption reforms and derailed multibillion-dollar financing from the IMF and Western backers. (Financial Times, 12.30.20)
  • Optima Ventures, the U.S. real-estate holding company owned by Ukrainian billionaires Ihor Kolomoyskiy and Hennadiy Boholyubov under FBI investigation for money laundering, has filed a motion in a court in the U.S. state of Delaware to sell two more buildings in the city of Cleveland amid foreclosure proceedings. (RFE/RL, 12.29.20)
  • Ukraine’s “Kvant-Radiolokatsiya” Research Institute has shipped a multifunction naval radar system for the U.S. military. The Mineral-ME is a multifunctional radar designed for self-defense, air and surface surveillance and simultaneous multiple targets tracking, volumetric search and multiple missiles guidance. (Defense Blog, 12.28.20)
  • U.S. Island-class patrol boats will arrive in Ukraine in the first half of this year, the Commander of the Ukrainian Navy has said. “In January, our Ukrainian crews will leave for Baltimore to take part in training on board,” he said, adding that a contract for the construction of U.S. Mark VI patrol boats for Ukraine had already been signed. (UkrInform, 01.04.21)
  • Ukrainian police said on Jan. 4 they were investigating documents and audio recordings dating back to 2012 about plans to murder a Belarusian journalist who was subsequently killed by a car bomb in Kyiv in 2016. The police released a statement on the case on the same day as online newspaper EUobserver published a recording of what it said was the Belarusian KGB security service in 2012 discussing plans to kill investigative journalist Pavel Sheremet. (Reuters, 01.04.21)
  • Russia is ready to conduct clinical trials in Ukraine of a COVID-19 vaccine combining its Sputnik V with a vaccine developed by AstraZeneca together with Oxford University, the head of Russian Direct Investment Fund said Jan. 2. (Reuters, 01.02.21)
  • Iran’s Cabinet allocated $150,000 for the families of each of the 176 people killed when Iranian forces shot down a Ukrainian airliner in January 2020. (Reuters, 12.30.20)
  • Despite the global economic recession, Ukraine’s trade deficit dropped in half last year, from $10.22 billion to $4.9 billion in 2020. (Ukraine Business News, 01.04.21)
  • Real wages were up 8 percent in Ukraine year-on-year in November, reports the State Statistics Service. Nationally, the average nominal wage was $404. In Kyiv, the wage was 54 percent higher at $622. (Ukraine Business News, 01.04.21)
  • The State Nuclear Regulatory Inspectorate of Ukraine (SNRC) has approved a 10-year extension to the operating license of unit five at the Zaporozhe nuclear power plant. The VVER-1000/V-320 reactor was commissioned in August 1989 and its original 30-year license expired on May 27, 2020. The new license extends the operation of unit 5 as well as of the facilities technologically related to it. (World Nuclear News, 01.06.21)

Russia’s other post-Soviet neighbors:

  • Kazakh President Qasym-Zhomart Toqaev has rejected recent comments by two Russian lawmakers describing Kazakhstan’s current territory as being a “gift” from Russia, saying such “provocative” remarks aimed to “spoil” relations between the two neighbors. “Nobody from outside gave Kazakhs this large territory as a gift,” Toqaev wrote in an article. Kazakhstan must “stand against provocative actions by some foreign citizens” who are trying to “spoil neighborly relations,” he said, without mentioning the two Russian politicians. (RFE/RL, 01.05.21)
  • Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan are holding elections Jan. 10, the results of which will inevitably be unpopular with segments of the two countries’ populations before and after election day. (RFE/RL, 12.21.20)
  • Kazakhstan says it has started producing the Russian-developed Sputnik-V coronavirus vaccine ahead of a mass vaccination project planned for early 2021. (RFE/RL, 12.21.20)
  • Moscow had been losing patience with Belarussian leader Alexander Lukashenko since the beginning of last year, but a series of agreements struck in recent days suggest a change in attitude from Russia. Gazprom announced Dec. 24 that it had agreed a new gas supply contract with the Belarusian government, and five days later Minsk said it had struck a deal for oil supplies. This week Russia’s deputy prime minister Alexander Novak said that Russia was exploring ways to help Belarus export oil products, and circumvent ports in the Baltic states that have imposed sanctions against Minsk. (Financial Times, 01.07.21)
    • Asked whether he and Putin were “on the same political team,” Lukashenko was unequivocal. “They pushed us tightly into one team, for the rest of our life,” he told Russia’s state television channel, in a comment broadcast Jan. 5 that underscored his desire to portray both the strength of their relations and the role that the rest of the world had played in cementing them. (Financial Times, 01.07.21)
  • The Russian National Guard has signed a cooperation agreement with Belarus’ police force to combat “terrorism and extremism,” Interfax reported Dec. 18. The two law enforcement agencies will cooperate on protecting public order and ensuring public safety and the protection of important state facilities and special cargo as well as the fight against terrorism and extremism, Interfax reported, citing the agreement on Belarus’ legal portal. (The Moscow Times, 12.18.20)
  • The Kremlin is preparing to launch and support a pro-Russia political party in Belarus called “The Right of the People” that will take advantage of mooted changes to the constitution that will lead to fresh parliamentary elections. Russian news site The Insider reported on Dec. 22 it has obtained documents claiming that Russia is going to intervene comprehensively in the internal politics of Belarus. (bne IntelliNews, 12.30.20)
  • Russia has delivered a batch of Sukhoi Su-30SM Flanker multirole fighter jets to Belarus with French-made advanced avionics. (Defense Blog, 12.31.20)
  • No one from the Kremlin has met Svetlana Tikhanovskaya. But she stresses that she wants good relations with Belarus’s biggest neighbor. “We have a very strong trade relationship, and we want this relationship to stay the same or maybe even tighten,” she says. “But it’s up to the Belarusian people to decide. It’s not up to Lukashenko or up to one person.” The Kremlin’s support for Lukashenko’s regime, she continues, underscoring her point, is souring Belarusians’ view of Moscow. (Financial Times, 01.01.21)
  • The U.S. has imposed sanctions on Belarusian police units and a senior security official in Minsk over their violent crackdown on mass demonstrations against the contested reelection of Lukashenko. U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Dec. 23 denounced what he said were ongoing “efforts to undermine Belarusian democracy.” “We stand with the brave people of Belarus and support their right to free and fair elections,” Pompeo said. (RFE/RL, 12.23.20)
  • Unit one of the first nuclear power plant to be built in Belarus started pilot operation on Dec. 22, Russia’s Rosatom has announced. Pilot operation is the final and longest check of a power unit before commissioning. The unit is be the first of the VVER-1200 design to be built outside Russia. (World Nuclear News, 12.23.20)
  • Moldovan President Maia Sandu has appointed Foreign Minister Aurel Ciocoi as acting prime minister. Sandu announced the appointment on Facebook on Dec. 31, following the resignation of former Prime Minister Ion Chicu. Sandu defeated pro-Russian President Igor Dodon in an election last month on a platform of combating corruption and building on her country’s Association Agreement with the EU. (RFE/RL, 01.01.21)
  • Armenia’s beleaguered prime minister, Nikol Pashinyan, has for the first time signaled a willingness to hold early parliamentary elections as opposition groups mount pressure for his resignation over the handling of a six-week war with Azerbaijan. (RFE/RL, 12.25.20)
  • Human rights groups say hundreds of videos showing atrocities by troops on both sides have been posted online in the month since a cease-fire deal halted the fighting over Nagorno-Karabakh. (RFE/RL, 12.21.20)
  • In an ongoing stand-off between the ruling Georgian Dream party and opposition parties refusing to take their seats in parliament, Georgian lawmakers have approved the first reading of a bill that withholds state funding for parties boycotting parliament. (RFE/RL, 12.23.20)
  • France has awarded its highest distinction, Legion of Honor in the rank of Knight, to Georgian billionaire and former Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili. (RFE/RL, 01.06.21)

 

IV. Quoteworthy

  • No significant developments.

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