Russia in Review, Aug. 9-16, 2019

This Week’s Highlights:

  • Officials and experts disagree whether it was the test of a 9M730 Burevestnik (NATO code: Skyfall) nuclear-powered cruise missile that caused an explosion that killed at least five nuclear researchers at the Nyonoksa missile test site in the Arkhangelsk region and caused gamma radiation to jump by up to 16 times on Aug. 8 in the area, media outlets report. Those who believe it was the Burevestnik reportedly include Donald Trumpofficials in his administration, Jeffrey Lewis of the Middlebury Institute of International Studies, and Federation of American Scientists nuclear expert Ankit Panda. However, Edwin Lyman, of the Union of Concerned Scientists, Andrei Zolotkov and Michael Kofman believe the incident involved a “radioisotope thermoelectric generator” akin to the U.S. Kilopower project.
  • U.S. national security adviser John Bolton said in reference to U.S. relations with Russia: "I do think there are common strategic interests [with Russia], particularly dealing with the rising military power of China, and I've had conversations with the Russians on that score. I think there are more to come,” Bolton said, according to RFE/RL.
  • FSB data shows that of the labor migrants who have arrived in Russia between January and June 2019, 50,300 came from China, 10,800 from Germany and 10,200 from Turkey. Only 4,300 British and 3,700 U.S. citizens traveled to Russia this year with the intent to work, The Moscow Times reports. In addition, tourism from China into Russia in the first half of 2019 rose by 32 percent to 591,900 people, Interfax reports.
  • Trump’s sanctions against Iran and Venezuela have inadvertently increased demand for a Russian brand of crude oil, with Russian oil companies receiving at least $905 million in additional revenues between November and July, Bloomberg reports.
  • In his speech at the Caspian Economic Forum in Avaza, Behrouz Namdari of Iran’s National Gas Company said that “Iran is against any trans-Caspian pipelines.” Russian Prime Minister Dimitri Medvedev, also in Avaza, said in his speech that he was “absolutely convinced that all major projects in the Caspian Sea should undergo a thorough and impartial environmental evaluation involving specialists from all Caspian countries,” RFE/RL reports.

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

Nuclear security and safety:

  • The Russian Defense Ministry said initially that two people had died and six were injured when a liquid-fueled rocket engine exploded at the the Nyonoksa range in the northern Russian region of Arkhangelsk on Aug. 8, sparking a fire. But there was no mention of any release of radiation. By Aug. 10, Rosatom announced that five of its employees had been killed, the first official indication that there had been some sort of nuclear component to the tests. Three others were injured, the agency said. No definitive death toll has been released, and it was unclear whether the Defense Ministry figure included the five cited by Rosatom. (RFE/RL, 08.13.19)
  • Thousands of people have attended the funerals of five Russian nuclear researchers killed in the Aug. 8 explosion. The five were buried in Sarov, a closed city some 375 kilometers east of Moscow that has served as a center for Russia's nuclear weapons program since the late 1940s. In a video published Aug. 11, Vyacheslav Solovyov, a nuclear researcher at the Nyonoksa range, said the five had been investigating, among other things, "the creation of small-scale sources of energy using radioactive fissile materials." Russian nuclear energy company Rosatom on Aug. 10 said the failure occurred in an “isotope power source for a liquid fueled rocket engine.” While the wording was confusing, it was the first official acknowledgment that the accident was nuclear in nature. The rocket's fuel caught fire, causing it to detonate and knock several people into the White Sea, Rosatom was quoted as saying by TASS. The explosion took place at around 6:00 a.m. on Aug. 8, according to one expert's reading of nuclear data. (RFE/RL, 08.13.19, RFE/RL, 08.12.19, New York Times, 08.12.19, The Moscow Times, 08.13.19) 
  • In its statement published by TASS on Aug. 13, Rosgidomet cited data collected by a northern regional monitoring agency, saying that gamma radiation levels jumped by four to 16 times normal levels in Severodvinsk on Aug. 8. An evacuation of Nyonoksa, the town where the blast occurred, was scheduled for Aug. 14, but was later canceled. However, Rosgidromet on Aug. 13 added further evidence to reports that the test at the Nyonoksa range had released not only toxic missile fuel but also unspecified radioactive material (RFE/RL, 08.13.19, RFE/RL, 08.14.19)
  • Norway's nuclear-safety authority said Aug. 15 that it was analyzing "tiny" amounts of radioactive iodine detected in the air in northern Norway shortly after the deadly explosion. The agency, whose monitoring equipment is hundreds of kilometers from the blast site, said it could not determine whether the iodine was connected to the Arkhangelsk explosion. (RFE/RL, 08.15.19, RFE/RL, 08.16.19)
  • An Aug. 8 image released by Planet Labs, a firm that launches small satellites, appears to show the Serebryanka, a ship that carries nuclear fuel and waste, offshore from the Nyonoksa Missile Test Site. (New York Times, 08.12.19)
  • In a tweet on Aug. 12, U.S. President Donald Trump asserted the incident was a failed test of a missile prototype, known as Burevestnik in Russia and nicknamed Skyfall by NATO experts, though he gave no evidence. When asked about Trump’s comments on Aug. 13, the Kremlin said it, not the United States, was out in front when it came to developing new nuclear weapons. “Our president has repeatedly said that Russian engineering in this sector significantly outstrips the level that other countries have managed to reach for the moment, and it is fairly unique,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said. A senior White House official echoed Trump's previous tweets to say that Washington believes a Russian hypersonic cruise-missile program is linked to the deadly Aug. 8 explosion. (Reuters, 08.13.19,  RFE/RL, 08.13.19, RFE/RL, 08.14.19)
  • "Something obviously has gone badly wrong here, but it demonstrates that although Russia's economy is roughly the size of the Netherlands, it's still spending enough on defense to not only modernize their nuclear arsenal to build new kinds of delivery vehicles, hypersonic glide vehicles, hypersonic cruise missiles, largely stolen from American technology," U.S. national security adviser John Bolton said in reference to the mysterious accident last week in northern Russia that caused a temporary spike in radiation levels.  (RFE/RL, 08.15.19)
  • Edwin Lyman, acting director of the Union of Concerned Scientists' Nuclear Safety Project, said Aug. 16 that he was "initially skeptical" that the accident involved a Burevestnik system because such an event would generate a range of different fission products, some of which are fairly dispersible and could be detected in trace amounts far away. "It's not just the radiation level, but the type of radiation," he said, and to date nobody has reported the presence of radioactive iodine, which would indicate a reactor accident. (RFE/RL, 08.15.19)
  • "Most of the evidence about the Arkhangelsk event points to the Burevestnik program being the culprit," Ankit Panda, a nuclear expert at the Federation of American Scientists, wrote. "This assessment is shared by the U.S. intelligence community." (RFE/RL, 08.15.19)
  • Andrei Zolotkov of the Russian chapter of the Norway-based Bellona Foundation independent environmental monitor, gave two alternative scenarios: an accident involving either "a small-sized nuclear installation or a radioisotope thermoelectric generator (RTG)." Russian and other media have reported the possibility that the accident involved the testing of an RTG, which would be in line with Rosatom's description of a "radio isotope power source." (RFE/RL, 08.15.19)
  • Michael Kofman, a senior research scientist at CNA, believes it was a novel radioisotope thermoelectric generator or a novel reactor type akin to the U.S. Kilopower project that was being tested rather than the Burevestnik missile. (Russian Military Analysis, 08.15.19)
  • Russian political expert Vladimir Frolov believes it was the 9М730 Burevestnik nuclear-powered cruise missiles that was being tested. He believes the missile’s engines could have been either similar to the ramjet engine, which was used in America’s Supersonic Low Altitude Missile or SLAM, or the radioisotope-fueled engine of the kind that was used in America’s Poodle thrusters. (Russia Matters, 08.14.19)

North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs:

  • Top Russian diplomat Igor Morgulov agreed in a series of meetings in Pyongyang this week to continue cooperation over the now-stalled negotiations with the U.S. as well as “trilateral projects” and others reached at the recent North Korea-Russia summit. Prior to landing in the North Korean capital on Aug. 14, Morgulov stopped in Beijing to meet with his Chinese counterpart Luo Zhaohui, where DPRK issues were the primary topic of discussion, according to both countries’ foreign ministries. (NK News, 08.16.19)

Iran’s nuclear program and related issues:

  • U.S. President Donald Trump’s sanctions against Iran and Venezuela have inadvertently increased demand for a Russian brand of crude oil, boosting revenues for the nation’s exporters. Russian oil companies received at least $905 million in additional revenues between November and July, data compiled by Bloomberg show. (Bloomberg, 08.16.19)

New Cold War/saber rattling:

  • NATO has provided further details on an incident that occurred over the Baltic Sea on Aug. 13, saying alliance warplanes approached two Russian Su-27 escort jets that were flying without a flight plan and with their transponders shut off. A day earlier, Russia's Defense Ministry claimed two of its Su-27s forced away a NATO F-18 jet after it approached an aircraft carrying Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu over international waters. (RFE/RL, 08.14.19)
  • Russia said on Aug. 14 it had flown two nuclear-capable TU-160 bombers to a far eastern Russian region opposite Alaska as part of a training exercise that state media said showed Moscow’s ability to park nuclear arms on the United States’ doorstep. (Reuters, 08.14.19)

Military issues, including NATO-Russia relations:

  • No significant developments.

Missile defense:

  • No significant developments.

Nuclear arms control:

  • “Some want to extend New START. Some are arguing in favor of creating something new. I’m not sure where it will go,” U.S. Ambassador to Russia Jon Huntsman said Aug. 14. (Reuters, 08.15.19)


  • A little-known Tajik man who grew up in a Dushanbe suburb has emerged as a unit leader of the Islamic State affiliate in Afghanistan as the extremist group tries to expand its footprint in the war-torn country. A recent report by the U.N. Security Council says Sayvaly Shafiev leads a group of approximately 200 fighters who hail from Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and other Central Asian countries. (RFE/RL, 08.12.19)

Conflict in Syria:

  • Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov has confirmed that preparations are underway for a Russia-Turkey-Iran summit on Syria scheduled for September. Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said earlier that preparations were being made for a trilateral summit on Syria in Ankara on Sept. 11. Work to set up a Syrian constitutional committee is almost over, but it is too early to speak about the exact date of its completion, Peskov said when asked if the committee’s establishment could be announced at the Russia-Iran-Turkey meeting. (Interfax, 08.13.19, TASS, 08.13.19)
  • Russia’s military has thwarted the third attack on its airbase in Syria in the past week, Russian news agencies have reported. The attacks took place as Russia’s ally Syria said last week it was resuming military operations in a Russian-led campaign in Idlib, blaming Turkey for not abiding by its commitments under a truce deal. (Reuters, 08.12.19)

Cyber security:

  • No significant developments.

Elections interference:

  • No significant developments.

Energy exports:

  • In his speech at the Caspian Economic Forum in Avaza, Behrouz Namdari of Iran’s National Gas Company said that “Iran is against any trans-Caspian pipelines.”  Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev was also in Avaza and said in his speech that he was “absolutely convinced that all major projects in the Caspian Sea should undergo a thorough and impartial environmental evaluation involving specialists from all Caspian countries.” (RFE/RL, 08.15.19)

Bilateral economic ties:

  • No significant developments.

Other bilateral issues:

  • U.S. envoy to North Korea Stephen Biegun is U.S. President Donald Trump’s likely choice to be the next ambassador to Russia, Vox News and Reuters report, citing sources familiar with the matter. Current Ambassador Jon Huntsman will leave Moscow on Oct. 3 (RFE/RL, 08.13.19)
  • Russian scientists on Aug. 14 ridiculed a government plan to impose Soviet-style restrictions on their interactions with colleagues from around the world, such as seeking permission for meetings and submitting reports about each encounter with a foreign peer. (New York Times, 08.16.19)
  • The Berlin-based Center for East European and International Studies (ZOiS) conducted a survey in 2018 that focused on Russians ages 16 to 34. In the ZOiS survey, 54 percent of respondents voiced the intention to migrate—of these 50 percent consider moving within the Russian Federation, 21 percent contemplate moving to a European Union country and 7 percent to the U.S. (The Washington Post/Monkey Cage, 08.12.19.)
  • Russia has added California-based Google to its growing list of alleged Western culprits whom it accuses of calling on Muscovites to attend protests, some of which have been held without official authorization. (RFE/RL, 08.11.19)
  • A court in the Siberian town of Kiselyovsk has fined an American woman after she interviewed local residents who had asked Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to provide them with asylum. (RFE/RL, 08.15.19)

II. Russia’s domestic news

Politics, economy and energy:

  • The crew of a Ural Airlines aircraft is being hailed as heroes after making an emergency landing in a farmer's field near Moscow with no fatalities among the 233 people on board. The airline said Aug. 15 that one of its Airbus A321 aircraft made an emergency landing in a cornfield near Zhukovsky airport on the outskirts of Moscow after birds were sucked into its engines. (RFE/RL, 08.15.19)
  • An estimated 60,000 people turned out for the fourth in a series of weekend protests in central Moscow on Aug. 10, a number too large for the Kremlin to ignore that also suggests that the tactic of increased police brutality at recent protests to put off would-be protestors has backfired. (bne Intellinews, 08.11.19)
  • The Kremlin denied Aug. 13 that political protests in Moscow in recent weeks have created a political crisis in Russia in its first comments on the rallies. "We do not agree with those many people who call what is happening a political crisis," Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters. (Reuters, 08.13.19)
  • An ex-special forces commander and current Russian senator has called a recent police crackdown on protests in Moscow “illegal and incompetent.” “As a former special forces commander, I believe the actions of those forces involved in maintaining public order were illegal and professionally incompetent,” Vyacheslav Markhayev, Irkutsk region senator, said Aug. 12. (The Moscow Times, 08.14.19)
  • Four of eight candidates from the liberal Yabloko party are registered for next month’s election to the Moscow city council after a court on Aug. 13 reversed a ruling by election officials to bar Sergei Mitrokhin from running. Prominent opposition figures banned from running in the Sept. 8 poll include politician Dmitry Gudkov, Lyubov Sobol, a lawyer for the Anti-Corruption Foundation headed by Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny, Ivan Zhdanov, who heads Navalny's foundation and opposition politician Ilya Yashin, who is the head of Moscow's Krasnoselsky municipal district. (RFE/RL, 08.14.19)
  • VTsIOM, Russia’s state-funded pollster, late last week switched from weekly to monthly publications of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s trust ratings. The most recent weekly data showed public trust in the Russian leader hovering at a 13-year low.  (The Moscow Times, 08.13.19)
  • The central finding of a Levada Center report titled The Russian Media Landscape 2019, is that state television’s position as the leading purveyor of news for Russians is eroding: Whereas a decade ago 94 percent of Russians obtained information about domestic and international affairs from television, today about 72 percent do. (bne Intellinews, 08.13.19)
  • Experts have been unable to establish that state money allocated for Russian theater director Kirill Serebrennikov's projects was misused, Judge Irina Akkuratova said as the high-profile embezzlement trial resumed in Moscow. (RFE/RL, 08.16.19)
  • Russia recorded slightly stronger GDP growth of 0.9 percent in the second quarter of this year, up from the soggy 0.5 percent the economy grew by in the first quarter, Rosstat reported on Aug.12. (bne Intellinews, 08.12.19)
  • Less than 15 percent of Russians are considered part of the middle class, according to an analysis of official data by state-run RIA Novosti. (The Moscow Times, 08.12.19)
  • In Central, Eastern and Southeastern Europe, there are some 52,000 SOEs (state-owned enterprises), defined as companies where the state has a stake of at least 20 percent, more than half of them in Russia. (Finanical Times, 08.15.19)
  • Rosenergoatom is expected to receive about 280 billion rubles ($4 billion) less in state funding for the construction of new nuclear reactors in Russia owing to the postponement of its fast neutron reactor program. (World Nuclear News, 08.13.19)

Defense and aerospace:

  • Russia’s Defense Ministry has released footage of its stealth drone flying with a fighter jet a week after unveiling the unmanned aircraft’s maiden flight. The Okhotnik (“Hunter”) combat drone is equipped with a jet engine, anti-radar skin coating and can speed up to 1,000 kilometers per hour, according to the Defense Ministry. (The Moscow Times, 08.16.19)
  • The 2019 International Army Games are taking place Aug. 3-17 and involve 32 competitions on the territory of 10 states: Russia, Azerbaijan, Armenia, Belarus, Iran, India, China, Kazakhstan, Mongolia and Uzbekistan. (TASS, 08.12.19)

Security, law-enforcement and justice:

  • Russia’s prison authority has confirmed reports of abuse at Europe’s largest pre-trial detention center days after new video footage renewed concerns about conditions in Russia’s penitentiary system. (The Moscow Times, 08.16.19)

III. Foreign affairs, trade and investment

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

  • Russians made 21.2 million trips abroad in the first half of 2019, the most visited countries being Turkey, Abkhazia and Finland, according to the Border Guard Service of the Russian Federal Security Service. (Interfax, 08.12.19)
  • A Moscow court has ruled that French banker Philippe Delpal can be transferred from pretrial detention to house arrest pending trial on fraud charges, while the head of his company, U.S. investor Michael Calvey, was denied a request to be released from house arrest. The Moscow City Court on Aug. 15 said Delpal, a partner at the Russia-based private-equity group Baring Vostok, would be held under house arrest until Oct. 13. In a separate hearing that followed, the court rejected Calvey's request, ordering him to remain under house arrest until the same date as Delpal. (RFE/RL, 08.15.19)
  • British detectives said Aug. 15 that a second police officer was contaminated with a banned Soviet-era nerve agent that was used to target a former Russian spy last year in Salisbury. (RFE/RL, 08.15.19)
  • Britain has banned the export of submarines to Russia over what it says are advances that pose a national security risk, including the alleged ability to cut undersea cables which carry most global internet communications. (The Moscow Times, 08.16.19)
  • Russia and Venezuela signed an agreement Aug. 15 governing visits by the countries’ warships to each other’s ports, Interfax reported. (Reuters, 08.15.19)


  • U.S. national security adviser John Bolton said in reference to U.S.-Russian relations: "I do think there are common strategic interests, particularly dealing with the rising military power of China, and I've had conversations with the Russians on that score. I think there are more to come.” (RFE/RL, 08.15.19)
  • Between January and June 2019, the numbers of labor migrants in Russia from China totalled 50,300. 10,800 arrived from Germany and 10,200 from Turkey. Only 4,300 British and 3,700 U.S. citizens traveled to Russia this year with the intent to work, according to FSB data. (The Moscow Times, 08.16.19)
  • Tourism from China into Russia in the first half of 2019 rose by 32 percent to 591,900 people. The top ten countries from which tourists come include Germany (192,400 arrivals, up 17.5 percent from the same period last year), South Korea (169,600 arrivals, up 45.3 percent), the U.S. (90,800), Israel (77,300, up 32 percent) and France (72,900, up 41 percent). (Interfax, 08.12.19)
  • Russia could ban timber exports to China unless Beijing takes action to help mitigate the effects of illegal logging, a Russian government minister said in an interview published Aug. 15. (Reuters, 08.15.19)
  • The Berlin-based Center for East European and International Studies (ZOiS) conducted a survey in 2018 that focused on Russians ages 16 to 34. The survey included a question about the country with which young people would like to see Russia have closer relations. The most frequently mentioned individual country was China (28 percent), followed by the U.S. (19 percent). E.U. countries as a whole were mentioned by 19 percent of respondents, with Germany (7 percent) claiming the top spot. (The Washington Post/Monkey Cage, 08.12.19.)
  • The Tajik and Chinese militaries have kicked off counterterrorism exercises in Tajikistan’s mountainous Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Region. Gorno-Badakhshan, the poorest region of Tajikistan, borders China, Afghanistan and Pakistan. (RFE/RL, 08.13.19)


  • Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy has simplified naturalization procedures for foreigners and stateless people who have "defended Ukraine" and for Russians facing "political persecution" at home. (RFE/RL, 08.13.19)
  • A court in Moscow has upheld a lower court's decision to extend pretrial detention for six of the 24 Ukrainian sailors detained by Russian forces along with their three naval vessels in November near the Kerch Strait, which links the Black Sea and Sea of Azov. (RFE/RL, 08.16.19)
  • U.S. special peace envoy to Ukraine Kurt Volker says Russian propaganda is making it a challenge to solve the conflict in the east of the country. (RFE/RL, 08.16.19)
  • The Ukrainian Foreign Ministry has protested Russian President Vladimir Putin's latest visit to Crimea, calling a it a "gross violation" of the country's sovereignty and territorial integrity. (RFE/RL, 08.11.19)
  • Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will visit Ukraine on Aug. 18-20, the first foreign leader to visit the country since Volodymyr Zelenskiy became president. (RFE/RL, 08.12.19)
  • The reform of the Ukrainian Security Service (SBU) was high on the agenda at the Aug. 13 meeting between the head of the National Security and Defense Council and an international advisory group composed of representatives of the EU, NATO and the U.S. (RFE/RL, 08.14.19)
  • Ukraine's new parliament will get sworn in on Aug. 29, Kyiv-based Dragon Capital investment bank wrote in a note to investors, citing the national legislature’s website. (RFE/RL, 08.13.19)
  • Ukrainian deputy minister Yuriy Hrymchak and his aide have been detained after allegedly taking a bribe worth $480,000, Ukraine’s National Anticorruption Bureau said on Facebook. (RFE/RL, 08.15.19)
  • Measles outbreaks are continuing to spread around the globe, with Ukraine among the nations reporting the highest number of new cases, the World Health Organization says. (RFE/RL, 08.13.19)
  • Jury selection started on Aug. 12 at the U.S. District Court in the trial of former White House counsel Greg Craig, who is accused of misleading authorities in relation to the work he performed for the benefit of former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych. (RFE/RL, 08.13.19)

Russia’s other post-Soviet neighbors:

  • FSB border service data says that 2.4 million migrants have arrived in Russia for work between January and June 2019, according to a tally by the RBC news website.   At 918,000 people, Uzbekistan contributed the majority of labor migrants to Russia, followed by 524,000 from Tajikistan, 265,000 from Kyrgyzstan, 165,000 from Ukraine and 105,000 from Kazakhstan. (The Moscow Times, 08.16.19)
  • Arrested former Kyrgyz President Almazbek Atambaev has been remanded in custody for another 10 days while an investigation has been launched into his wife's activities. Kyrgyz security officials accused Atambaev of plotting to stage a coup after a deadly confrontation with police during his arrest last week. Atambaev's lawyer Sergei Slesarev told RFE/RL Aug. 14 that his client had been told he has been charged with corruption allegedly committed during the modernization of the Bishkek Thermal Power Station and during the privatization of a forum building in Bishkek. (RFE/RL, 08.16.19, RFE/RL, 08.14.19, RFE/RL, 08.13.19)
  • Kyrgyz Deputy Interior Minister Kursan Asanov, who personally negotiated former President Almazbek Atambaev's surrender last week after two days of deadly resistance, has been fired for allegedly "betraying the interests of the Kyrgyz police and losing confidence." (RFE/RL, 08.14.19)
  • Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov has given the opening speech at the Caspian Economic Forum in Turkmenistan—his first public appearance since July 5 amid rumors that he had died or had slipped into a coma during hospital treatment. (RFE/RL, 08.12.19)

IV. Quoteworthy

  • Jeremy Shapiro, director of research at the European Council on Foreign Relations: “Already, 67 percent of the British public have a negative opinion of Trump. No other world leader scores worse—not even Russian President Vladimir Putin, who in 2018 ordered a chemical weapons attack on British soil.” (Foreign Affairs, 08.08.19)