Russia in Review, Jan. 14-21, 2022

This Week’s Highlights

  • The U.S. and Russia agreed on Jan. 21 to keep diplomacy alive in their standoff over Ukraine, even as both sides continued to raise the military stakes on the ground, the New York Times reports; Washington has said it would provide written responses next week to Russia’s demands that NATO scale back its military presence in Eastern Europe. Earlier, Russian officials called on the West to stop supplying Ukraine with weapons, according to RFE/RL, as new defensive military assistance poured in from the U.S., United Kingdom and others.
  • NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said Jan. 18 that he had invited Western allies and Russia to hold another set of security talks soon to “try to find a way forward to prevent any military attack against Ukraine” and address both the alliance’s and Russia’s concerns, AFP/The Moscow Times report. Meanwhile, Russian Deputy Defense Minister Alexander Fomin summoned dozens of foreign military diplomats stationed in Moscow—including 16 from NATO member countries—to announce joint military drills with Belarus, some of them near the Ukrainian border. 
  • U.S. President Joe Biden said Jan. 18 that he expected Vladimir Putin would order an invasion of Ukraine and the U.S. response would depend on what Russia does, various U.S. media report. The New York Times pointed out that, in his comments, Biden seemed to contradict some of his aides, who had said in background briefings that there would be no distinction between a small incursion into Russian-speaking territory in Ukraine and a full attack on the country.
  • A massive new Republican sanctions bill being introduced this week would go after corruption by Russia’s president, every member of his Cabinet, his family members and even his alleged longtime mistress, The Washington Post reports. The Putin Accountability Act is meant to push the Biden team to consider ramping up sanctions before an invasion of Ukraine, rather than after.
  • A debilitating, mysterious medical ailment known as Havana Syndrome that has struck hundreds of U.S. diplomats, spies and other personnel worldwide was unlikely caused by attacks from Russia or other foreign adversaries, according to a CIA report cited by The Wall Street Journal.
  • Iran, Russia and China have held their third joint naval drill in the northern Indian Ocean, multiple news outlets report. The exercises come at a time of rising tensions with the U.S. for all three countries, but economic and geopolitical concerns may have played a bigger role, one expert told the South China Morning Post.
  • Daily average shipments of Russian crude oil to the U.S. in 2021 were the highest in 11 years, with the U.S. now importing higher volumes from Russia than from key ally Saudi Arabia, according to S&P Global Platts.

 

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

Nuclear security:

  • No significant developments.

North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs:

  • No significant developments.

Iran and its nuclear program:

  • Russian President Vladimir Putin has met his Iranian counterpart, Ebrahim Raisi, in Moscow amid international negotiations aimed at reviving the JCPOA. Raisi said Jan. 19 that he had presented Moscow with draft documents on strategic cooperation between the two countries for the next two decades. Raisi said Iran had "no limits for expanding ties with Russia." Putin praised the countries' "close cooperation" on the international stage and said "it is very important for me to known your opinion on the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action." (RFE/RL, 01.19.22, The Moscow Times/AFP, 01.19.22)
    • The value of Iranian-Russian total trade stood at $1.6 billion over nine months ending in late December, up 41% over the corresponding period of the previous year, Iran’s official figures show. (Financial Times, 01.19.22)
    • Iran, Russia and China are holding their third joint naval drill in the northern Indian Ocean, amid speculation that the three countries are teaming up in the face of growing regional tensions with the United States. (RFE/RL, 01.21.22)
    • See China section below for more.
  • As the Biden administration tries to revive the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, one of the biggest obstacles is Tehran's demand that the U.S. provides a guarantee that it won't again quit the pact and reimpose sanctions, diplomats say. The demand, a reaction to former President Donald Trump's withdrawal from the deal, appears to be a paramount political objective for the government of Iran's new hardline president, diplomats say. (The Wall Street Journal, 01.17.22)
  • U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Jan. 20 that talks to revive the Iran nuclear deal have reached an "urgent" point following "modest progress" in negotiations in Vienna. However, Blinken told reporters after meeting with European allies in Berlin that reviving the agreement was still possible. On Jan. 19, U.S. President Joe Biden said it was "not time to give up" on the talks with Iran, insisting "there is some progress being made" in the Vienna discussions. (RFE/RL, 01.20.22)

Great Power rivalry/new Cold War/saber rattling:

  • The U.S. and Russia agreed on Jan. 21 to keep diplomacy alive in their standoff over Ukraine, even as both sides continued to raise the military stakes on the ground. Blinken told his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, in a hastily scheduled meeting in Geneva that Washington would provide written responses next week to Russia’s demands that the West scale back its military presence in Eastern Europe. Lavrov described the talks as “a useful, honest discussion,” while Blinken called them “direct, businesslike” and “not polemical.” Both sides said the diplomats planned to speak again, and they left the door open to another conversation between presidents Joe Biden and Vladimir Putin to try to resolve the crisis. Prior to the Geneva meeting, a U.S. official who spoke on condition of anonymity said Blinken's goal was to see "if there is a diplomatic off-ramp" and "common ground" where Russia can be persuaded to pull back from Ukraine, while Lavrov told Blinken by phone that it is imperative for Russia to receive written answers to each proposal on security guarantees. (The New York Times, 01. 21.22, AFP/The Moscow Times, 01.18.22, Interfax, 01.18.22)
  • Biden said Jan. 18 that he now expected Putin would order an invasion of Ukraine. Asked to clarify whether he was accepting that an invasion was coming, Biden said: “My guess is he will move in. He has to do something.” During the press conference Biden said the U.S. response "depends on what it does." In his Jan. 19 remarks on Putin’s plans vis-à-vis Ukraine, Biden said: “If he invades, it hasn’t happened since World War II.”  “Our allies and partners are ready to impose severe costs and significant harm on Russia and the Russian economy," Biden said, including sanctions on the energy sector and making it impossible for Russian banks to deal in U.S. dollars, the world’s reserve currency. Although the Russian military is more powerful that Ukraine’s, Biden suggested the loss of life for the Russians would be “heavy." Biden also said aloud what his negotiators have said in private to the Russians. Ukraine would not be accepted into the NATO alliance for years, Biden said. He added that he could assure Putin that the U.S. had no intention of basing nuclear weapons there. (The New York Times, 01.19.22, The Washington Post, 01.20.22, The Wall Street Journal, 01.19.22, RFE/RL, 01.19.22)
    • In his comments Biden seemed to contradict some of his own aides, who have said in the past week, in background briefings for reporters, that there would be no distinction between a small incursion into Russian-speaking territory in Ukraine and a full attack on the country. An invasion is an invasion is an invasion, one State Department official, speaking to reporters on condition of anonymity, said last week. (The New York Times, 01.19.22)
    • U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris on Jan. 20 insisted the United States would not accept a "minor incursion" of Ukraine by Russia, as the White House continued to clarify remarks Biden had made suggesting that it might. (The Washington Post, 01.20.22)
    • The Kremlin warned on Jan. 20 that Biden’s threats of sanctions if Russia invades Ukraine destabilize European security. “All these statements can contribute to the destabilization of the situation,” Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov said. Peskov added that further telephone talks between Putin and Biden would be possible as soon as the U.S. and NATO provide written responses to Russia’s list of demands for security guarantees. “After the situation with America’s response clears up, there will already be an understanding at what stage the presidents will decide to join and continue dialogue,” Peskov said. On Jan. 19, Peskov said the talks between Lavrov and Blinken on Jan. 22 were crucial. (The Moscow Times/AFP, 01.20.22, The Wall Street Journal, 01.19.22)
  • In Kyiv on Jan. 19, Blinken called on Putin to choose a "diplomatic and peaceful path" and said Washington continues to pursue diplomacy with Moscow as long as it can to avoid aggression in Ukraine amid mounting fears that an invasion could be imminent. Blinken then held crisis talks on Ukraine with European allies on Jan. 20 in Berlin, meeting his counterparts from Germany, France and the U.K. During the Jan. 20 talks Blinken said that if any Russian forces move across the Ukrainian border there will be a “swift, severe response from the United States and our allies and partners.” (RFE/RL, 01.19.22, The Washington Post, 01.20.22)
    • Speaking at a joint news conference with Blinken, German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock said the ministers “urge Russia to take steps towards a de-escalation” of the situation. "Any further aggressive stance, any further aggression, would have grave consequences," Baerbock said. (RFE/RL, 01.20.22)
  • “I’m not going to preview 18 different scenarios . . . I would simply say that our commitment and the conversation that we have with our allies is around inflicting very sharp pain very fast, if Russia makes this move in any form,” said Victoria Nuland, the U.S. under-secretary of state for political affairs. However, she added that from the U.S. perspective, the door to a diplomatic solution was still open. (Financial Times, 01.17.22)
  • CIA Director William Burns quietly visited the German and Ukrainian capitals days ahead of Blinken's visit this week to meet with key European allies, according to U.S. and German officials. Burns briefed German Chancellor Olaf Scholz and the intelligence community on the Russia-Ukraine issue and possible scenarios involving those countries. He said that Berlin should shut the recently completed Nord Stream 2 natural-gas pipeline to Russia in the event of an invasion of Ukraine. (The Wall Street Journal, 01.20.22)
  • In a speech to the European Parliament, French President Emmanuel Macron called for EU states to “conduct their own dialogue” with Russia rather than support diplomatic efforts led by the U.S. and NATO. Macron said that despite the joint EU-U.S. diplomacy, Europeans had to offer Russia a solution to de-escalate tensions with Moscow in the “coming weeks.” (Financial Times, 01.19.22)
    • France and the EU on Jan. 20 sought to reassure the U.S. that the Europeans remained committed to Washington-led negotiations with Russia over averting further conflict in Ukraine, after Macron called for a distinct EU dialogue with Moscow. (Financial Times, 01.20.22)
    • Sergei Ryabkov, Russia’s deputy foreign minister, on Jan. 19 also resisted the idea of broader talks and said Moscow would prefer to deal primarily with Washington. “We would prefer to find an understanding and do a deal with the Americans foremost. Bringing in too broad a circle of countries into these process seems counterproductive to us,” Ryabkov said. (Financial Times, 01.20.22)
    • Konstantin Gavrilov, the head of the Russian delegation at the Vienna Negotiations on Military Security and Arms Control, on Jan. 19 warned that "there arrives a moment of truth when the West either accepts our proposals or other ways will be found to safeguard Russia’s security," but noted that "it is possible to find a way out to mutually acceptable solutions. We are running out of time. The countdown begins." (The Moscow Times/AFP, 01.20.22)
  • The EU, alongside the U.S. and U.K., has warned that Russia will face sanctions entailing “massive consequences and severe costs” in the event of an attack on Ukraine. But EU countries do not agree on what scale of attack would trigger a response. (Financial Times, 01.19.22)
  • British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said Jan. 20 that any move by Russia to invade Ukraine “would be a disaster for the world.” (RFE/RL, 01.20.22)
  • During a visit to Kyiv, German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock said diplomacy is "the only way" to resolve a tense standoff between Moscow and the West over Ukraine, while also warning that Russia will pay a "high price" if it launches an attack on its neighbor.  Baerbock sought to revive the four-nation “Normandy” format to de-escalate tensions over Ukraine. Baerbock and her Ukrainian counterpart, Dmytro Kuleba, said Jan. 17 they were united in pushing to revive the Normandy peace talks format between Germany, France, Russia and Ukraine. (Financial Times, 01.17.22, RFE/RL, 01.17.22.)
    • Lavrov said Russia would welcome U.S. involvement in additional talks separate from the Normandy format, indicating that the Kremlin sees a possible resolution to the Ukraine crisis as part of a grand bargain on security with the White House. “We have reason to believe that the current administration has a more realistic view on resolving the Ukraine conflict,” Lavrov said at a press conference after meeting Baerbock. At the same time Russia is not interested in Normandy format meetings held for the sake of political statements, he said. (Financial Times, 01.18.22, Interfax, 01.18.22)
  • Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Jan. 18 warned Russia against invading Ukraine, calling the former Soviet republic a "powerful" country with international friends. (The Moscow Times/AFP, 01.18.22)
  • See more news on international responses to the Ukraine crisis in “Ukraine” section below.
  • A debilitating, mysterious medical ailment known as Havana Syndrome that has struck hundreds of U.S. diplomats, spies and other personnel world-wide was unlikely caused by attacks from Russia or other foreign adversaries, a CIA report says. “We assess it is unlikely that a foreign actor, including Russia, is conducting a sustained, world-wide campaign harming U.S. personnel with a weapon or mechanism," a senior CIA official said. (The Wall Street Journal, 01.20.22)

NATO-Russia relations:

  • NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said Jan. 18 that he had invited Western allies and Russia to hold another set of security talks soon. Stoltenberg said the proposed NATO-Russia Council meeting would aim to “try to find a way forward to prevent any military attack against Ukraine” and address both the alliance’s and Russia’s concerns. A day earlier Stoltenberg said that Putin's show of force in trying to get NATO out of Eastern Europe has the opposite effect: "Every time he's aggressive, he gets the opposite." (The Moscow Times/AFP, 01.18.22, The Wall Street Journal, 01.17.22) 
  • The security guarantees that Russia seeks from the West include provisions requiring NATO forces to leave Romania and Bulgaria, the Russian Foreign Ministry said Jan. 21. (Reuters, 01.21.22)
  • Russian Deputy Defense Minister Alexander Fomin summoned dozens of foreign military diplomats stationed in Moscow—including 16 from NATO member countries—to announce joint military drills with Belarus, which he said were aimed at "thwarting external aggression." He said that S-400 missile systems, which Russia has controversially sold to NATO member Turkey, would be deployed as part of the exercises in Belarus. (The Moscow Times/AFP, 01.18.22)
  • See also “Great Power rivalry” subsection above and Section III below.

China-Russia: Allied or aligned?

  • China, Iran and Russia carried out three days of joint naval drills in the Gulf of Oman from Jan. 18 to 20, their second such exercise since 2019, and their third total in the northern Indian Ocean. The drills, which Beijing said showcased a capability to “jointly safeguard maritime security,” came at a time of rising tensions with the U.S. for all three, but economic and geopolitical concerns may have played a bigger role, one expert noted. (SCMP, 01.21.22, Reuters, 01.21.22)
  • Space debris from a Russian anti-satellite missile test came within 47 feet of knocking out China's Tsinghua science satellite on Jan. 18, Beijing has said. (Daily Mail, 01.21.22)

Missile defense:

  • No significant developments.

Nuclear arms control:

  • While the past year offered glimmers of hope that humankind might reverse its march toward global catastrophe, the Doomsday Clock was set at just 100 seconds to midnight. The time is based on continuing and dangerous threats posed by nuclear weapons, climate change, disruptive technologies and COVID-19. All of these factors were exacerbated by “a corrupted information ecosphere that undermines rational decision making.” (Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, 01.20.22)

Counter-terrorism:

  • No significant developments.

Conflict in Syria:

  • Flights of Tu-22MZ bombers out of Syria’s Khmeimim air base confirmed the planes can reach targets across the entire Mediterranean Sea, Sergey Kobylash, commander of Russia’s long-range air force said in an interview to the Independent Military Review newspaper. (TASS, 01.13.22)
  • Putin and Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennet discussed interaction in Syria, settlement in the Middle East and the situation around the Iranian nuclear program during their phone call, the Kremlin said in a statement. (TASS, 01.13.22)

Cyber security:

  • “It’s one thing to determine that if they continue to use cyber efforts, we will response the same way, with cyber,’’ Biden said on Jan. 19 of Russia’s plans vis-à-vis Ukraine. But the president cut himself off, so it was unclear if he was suggesting that a cyberattack on Ukraine would result in a U.S.- or NATO-led cyber retaliation against Russia. (The New York Times, 01.19.22)
  • A Moscow court ordered the arrest of three more people allegedly linked to the ransomware group REvil, one day after Russian security agents said they had raided several apartments and seized cash and computer equipment. The news brings the number of those arrested in the operation to five. Russia's Federal Security Service said the Jan. 14 raids were done at the request of U.S. authorities, which U.S. officials later confirmed. (RFE/RL, 01.15.22)
  • The U.S. has sent another Russian hacker back home after serving years in U.S. prison. Alexander Panin, the primary developer of a prolific malware known as SpyEye, was deported to Russia on Jan. 5, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement said. Panin was released on Nov. 8 after serving more than eight years in a Mississippi prison and turned over to ICE custody for deportation. (RFE/RL, 01.14.22)
  • Several Ukrainian government agencies had their data wiped in a cyberattack that was coordinated with another attack that defaced government agency websites in recent days, according to the Ukrainian government and other individuals familiar with the incident. The actor behind those attacks has not been officially determined, although the Ukrainian government has said it believes Russia is responsible. (The Washington Post, 01.18.22)
  • A senior U.S. official said a large-scale cyber attack against Ukraine on Jan. 14 was a “tried and true part of the Russian playbook.” Victoria Nuland, the U.S. under-secretary of state for political affairs, stopped short of blaming Russia for the cyber attack, which targeted dozens of Ukrainian government websites. But she said the episode was part of a familiar and disturbing pattern of actions from Moscow. (Financial Times, 01.17.22)
    • A top Ukrainian official says a Belarusian intelligence agency is likely behind the hacking of several Ukrainian government websites this week. (RFE/RL, 01.15.22.)

Elections interference:

  • No significant developments.

Energy exports from CIS:

  • Speaking from Berlin, German chancellor Olaf Scholz said that everything would be on the table if Russia invaded Ukraine, including the controversial pipeline Nord Stream 2 which has been completed but is stalled over European regulation requirements. “It is clear that there will be high costs and that everything will have to be discussed if there is a military intervention against Ukraine,” Scholz said after meeting Jens Stoltenberg, NATO’s secretary-general. (Financial Times, 01.18.22)
  • Daily average shipments of Russian crude oil to the U.S. in 2021 were the highest in 11 years, with the U.S. now importing higher volumes from Russia than it is from key ally Saudi Arabia. The tense Ukraine situation and rising geopolitical risks in the Middle East have partly pushed oil prices higher in recent weeks and led a number of banks to increase their price forecasts. (S&P Global Platts, 01.21.22)
  • Russia may be able to deliver only about half of its scheduled increases in crude production over the next six months, joining the ranks of OPEC+ nations that are struggling to ramp up even as fuel demand rebounds from the pandemic. With crude already trading above $85 a barrel in London, the outlook for Russian output leaves the global market looking even tighter than expected and risks amplifying the energy-price surge that’s contributing to the highest inflation in decades. (Bloomberg, 01.18.22)
    • Oil prices traded within striking distance of a seven-year high on Jan. 17, threatening to drive global inflation up further as supply remained constrained and fears of another pandemic-induced slowdown in demand faded. Brent, the international benchmark, has climbed more than 10% in the first two weeks of the year to as much as $86.71 a barrel, exceeding last October’s high, to approach levels not seen since 2014 when oil topped $115. (Financial Times, 01.17.22)
  • Moldova's lawmakers have approved a 60-day state of emergency in the energy sector amid the country's difficulties with gas payments to Russia's Gazprom. Prime Minister Natalia Gavrilita told parliament on Jan. 20 that the new regime was needed after Gazprom, the largest supplier of natural gas to Europe, rejected a request to reschedule a January gas payment. The government has said that Moldovagaz proposed paying $38 million to Gazprom by Jan. 20, with the remaining $25 million to be paid later. (RFE/RL, 01.20.22)

U.S.-Russian economic ties:

  • No significant developments.

U.S.-Russian relations in general:

  • A massive new GOP sanctions bill being introduced this week would go after the corruption of Putin himself, every member of his cabinet, his family members and even his alleged longtime mistress Alina Kabaeva. Organized by the Republican Study Committee (RSC), a grouping of more than 150 conservative lawmakers, the Putin Accountability Act is meant to push the Biden team to consider ramping up the sanctions against Putin and Russia now, before an invasion of Ukraine, rather than after. The bill, led by RSC Chairman Rep. Jim Banks, currently has more than 30 co-sponsors. (The Washington Post, 01.20.22)
  • Russia said Jan. 17 that Facebook had restored access to Moscow's official page for arms control talks in Vienna, after Russia's media regulator accused the U.S. tech giant of censorship. The Facebook page, which is affiliated to Russia's Foreign Ministry, was taken down on Jan. 14 for publishing "illegal content," according to delegation head Konstantin Gavrilov. (The Moscow Times/AFP, 01.17.22)

 

II. Russia’s domestic policies

Domestic politics, economy and energy:

  • St. Petersburg, Russia's second-largest city, announced on Jan. 21 that it is placing a limit on outpatient care and stopping elective procedures because of an all-time high infection rate reported by the state coronavirus task force. (Newsweek, 01.21.22) Here’s a link to RFE/RL’s interactive map of COVID’s spread around the world, including in Russia and the rest of ex-Soviet Eurasia.  
  • Russia’s central bank reserves have soared more than 70% since late 2015 and now surpass $620 billion. Dollar reserves made up about 16.4% of total reserves last year, from 22.2% in June 2020, according to data published last week. About a third of the reserves are in euros, 21.7% are in gold and 13.1% are in renminbi. Surging oil prices, which have climbed beyond Russia’s budgetary break-even price of $43 per barrel, have boosted Russia’s reserve fund to $190 billion as of the third quarter of 2021. Russia expects it to grow to $300 billion by 2024. Meanwhile, government debt is equivalent to about 20% of GDP and is forecast to fall to 18.5% by the end of 2023, according to credit agency Fitch Ratings. (Financial Times, 01.18.22)
  • Russia’s Central Bank proposed Jan. 20 to ban cryptocurrency investment and mining as governments around the world crack down on the decentralized currencies, citing threats to monetary stability. (The Moscow Times/AFP, 01.20.22)
  • One outcome of the Kremlin’s economic and social control over its big companies is high dividend payouts. Since 2016, it has been Russian state policy to force key companies to pay out at least half of their profits in dividends. According to Renaissance Capital, the consensus forecast for the dividend yield on MSCI Russia Index companies over the next 12 months is currently at 11%. That is the largest such estimated yield among all countries in the MSCI Emerging Markets Index. (Financial Times, 01.15.22)
  • The Russian initial public offering (IPO) market in 2021 hit a record $3.7 billion, the highest since 2011, RBC reported, citing data from the Refinitiv consultancy. At the same time, the mergers-and-acquisitions (M&A) market was down by 40% in 2021, mostly due to the high base of 2020, which saw a transfer of the controlling stake in Russia's largest bank, Sberbank, from the Central Bank to the Finance Ministry. (bne Intellinews, 01.19.21)
  • Putin has tasked his government with submitting proposals to build a railway link to the Barents Sea coast as Moscow races to develop the Arctic. Putin ordered Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin to "submit proposals for the creation of a railway route to the Barents Sea," the Kremlin said Jan. 14. The deadline to present the proposals is May 10. (The Moscow Times/AFP, 01.16.22)
  • Jailed Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny said Jan. 17 he does not regret choosing to return to Russia a year ago despite his immediate arrest and the harsh crackdown on his movement that followed. Navalny said his Jan. 17, 2021, detention on old fraud charges at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport prevented him from “taking a single step in my country as a free person.” Navalny has urged Western governments to ignore Putin’s security demands instead of “falling into his trap” of trying to prevent a possible invasion of Ukraine through negotiations. (The Moscow Times/AFP, 01.17.22, The Moscow Times/AFP, 01.19.22)
  • A Russian court in Siberia has handed lengthy prison terms to two Jehovah's Witnesses, in the latest persecution of members of the banned Christian group. (RFE/RL, 01.20.22)

Defense and aerospace:

  • The Russian military announced Jan. 20 plans to hold a series of cross-country naval exercises in January and February as tensions with the West continue to mount over Moscow’s troop buildup near Ukraine. The drills will stretch across every body of water bordering Russia and involve more than 140 warships, 1,000 pieces of military equipment, 10,000 troops and 60 aircraft. (The Moscow Times/AFP, 01.20.22)

Security, law-enforcement and justice:

  • A court in Moscow has sentenced to lengthy prison terms four defendants convicted in an anti-drug operation that found almost 400 kilograms of cocaine on the premises of the Russian Embassy in Argentina. (RFE/RL, 01.20.22)
  • Amnesty International has urged Russia's federal authorities to act after the "kidnapping" of a Chechen human rights lawyer's mother from her apartment in the city of Nizhny Novgorod, some 1,800 kilometers away from Chechnya. (RFE/RL, 01.21.22)

 

III. Russia’s relations with other countries

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

  • Sweden has sent hundreds of troops to reinforce a crucial island in the Baltic Sea as its defense minister warned that the Scandinavian country should not be naive and could be attacked. An emergency contingency unit of Sweden’s armed forces landed on Gotland on Jan. 14 and Jan. 15 by plane and passenger ferry, bringing troops and equipment to an island many have compared to an aircraft carrier in the middle of the Baltic Sea. (Financial Times, 01.16.22)
  • The U.N. on Jan. 20 adopted an Israeli resolution that condemns denial and distortion of the Holocaust. Adoption of the resolution by the 193-member General Assembly, co-sponsored by Germany and supported by the United States and Russia among many others, took place against the backdrop of rising antisemitism globally. (The New York Times, 01.20.22)

Ukraine:

  • The White House said Jan. 18 that Russia is ready to attack Ukraine at "any point," upping its threat assessment ahead of a meeting between the top U.S. and Russian diplomats. "We're now at a stage where Russia could at any point launch an attack on Ukraine," press secretary Jen Psaki said. "I would say that's more stark than we have been." (The Moscow Times/AFP, 01.18.22)
  • Russia announced Jan. 20 the deployment of over 140 combat and supply ships, over 50 aircraft, 1,000 pieces of military equipment and 10,000 military servicemen. The Defense Ministry said the Russian Navy will have a series of exercises in all zones of responsibility from January to February, according to the Russian news agency TASS. (Newsweek, 01.20.22)
  • Prior to that announcement, Russian forces near Ukraine had totaled at most 60 battalion tactical groups (BTGs), along with support elements, according to U.S. experts Michael Kofman and Dmitry Gorenburg. BTGs are task-organized combined-arms formations, each averaging 800 personnel in size. This translates into roughly 48,000 troops. Adding the supporting units, the total number of Russian troops was likely to be 85,000—with more on the way. Aside from these regular Russian troops, there were about 15,000 separatist forces or Russian-led formations in Ukraine's Donbas region. (The Washington Post, 01.15.22)
  • Russian-backed militants have deployed an additional 275 combat vehicles, including main battle tanks and artillery systems, closer to frontline positions of the Ukrainian army on the country’s war-torn east, according to the press office of the Joint Forces Operation. (Defense Blog, 01.16.22)
  • Joint military exercises between Russia and Belarus in the coming weeks will provide Russian President Vladimir Putin with new options if he decides to attack Ukraine and will further stretch that country's defenses, military analysts say. Russian forces and equipment have begun arriving in Belarus. The drills are to be held in two places: on Belarus’s western edge near Poland and Lithuania, two NATO countries, and along the Ukrainian border, which could prove another pathway for invasion. A senior State Department official said Jan. 18 that Russian forces in Belarus are “neither an exercise, nor normal troop movement. It is a show of strength designed to cause or give false pretext for a crisis as Russia plans for a possible invasion." (Reuters, 01.18.22, The New York Times, 01.17.22, RFE/RL, 01.18.22)
  • To ensure a functioning air defense for the Russian-Belarusian union, 12 Su-35 jets will be relocated to Belarusian territory, in addition to two divisions of the S-400 antiaircraft missile system, Russia’s deputy defense minister said. Pantsir-S antiaircraft missile and gun battalions would also be redeployed. (The Wall Street Journal, 01.19.22)
  • A flotilla of Russian amphibious assault ships has left the Baltic Sea and is heading through the English Channel, according to photographs on social media and military analysts. The analysts said those ships are likely steaming to the Black Sea to build up Moscow’s already formidable military presence in and around Crimea. (The Wall Street Journal, 01.19.22, The War Zone, 01.17.22)
  • The week before intensive diplomatic meetings began over the buildup of Russian troops on the Ukrainian border, American and Ukrainian officials watched from afar as Russia began emptying out its embassy in Kyiv. On Jan. 5, 18 people—mostly the children and wives of Russian diplomats—boarded buses and embarked on a 15-hour drive home to Moscow, according to a senior Ukrainian security official. About 30 more followed in the next few days, from Kyiv and a consulate in Lviv, in western Ukraine. Diplomats at two other Russian consulates have been told to prepare to leave Ukraine, the security official said. (The New York Times, 01.17.22)
    • Russia on Jan. 18 dismissed media reports that it was drawing down numbers from its diplomatic missions in Ukraine, saying that its embassy in Kyiv was operating normally. (The Moscow Times/AFP, 01.18.22)
  • In a televised address Jan. 19, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy noted that the country had lived under the threat of war since 2014, when Russia first invaded. "The risks have been present for more than a day, and they haven't grown," Zelenskiy said. "The hype around them has grown." (The Wall Street Journal, 01.20.22)
  • Oleksiy Danilov, secretary of Ukraine's National Security and Defense Council, said a military invasion would be very costly for Russia, given the size of Ukraine's army, the population's will to fight and pressure from the West. More likely, he said, Russia would seek, at least in the short term, to intensify a campaign of cyberattacks, provocations, disinformation and economic pressure. Putin has two broad options, Danylyuk said. The first is a large-scale operation aimed at seizing the eastern half of Ukraine, toppling the government or forcing it to negotiate. The second is an attack using missiles and airstrikes to destroy military and transportation infrastructure. Such an approach would be less costly and strike where Kyiv is weak: its outdated air defense. (The Wall Street Journal, 01.20.22)
  • A senior State Department official confirmed that the Biden administration has approved $200 million in new defensive military assistance to Ukraine, saying on Jan. 19 that the U.S. “will continue to provide Ukraine the support it needs.” That sum includes Javelin antitank missiles, U.S. officials said, though the administration has stopped short of providing offensive weapons to Ukraine and said it won’t use direct military force to support the country. (The Wall Street Journal, 01.19.22)
    • Apart from that latest sum, the U.S. has provided over $400 million in security assistance to Ukraine over the past year, more than at any point since 2014, when Russia annexed Crimea. The Ukrainian government and both Republicans and Democrats in Congress are pushing for up to $500 million more. A bill introduced on Jan. 20 would initiate a "lend-lease" agreement for Ukraine. (Axios World, 01.20.22)
    • Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov called on the West to stop supplying Ukraine with weapons, describing the situation around European security as "critical." (RFE/RL, 01.19.22)
  • Russia is urging the U.S. to strong-arm Ukraine into fulfilling its obligations under the Minsk agreements “if Washington is indeed interested in a political settlement” of the Ukraine conflict, Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said Jan. 19. "There is a need to stop beefing up the hawkish Ukrainian regime," he added. (TASS, 01.19.22)
  • In discussions with allies, senior Biden officials have made clear that the CIA (covertly) and the Pentagon (overtly) would both seek to help any Ukrainian insurgency. Administration officials interviewed this week said that plans to help Ukrainian insurgents could include providing training in nearby countries that are part of NATO’s eastern flank.  Beyond logistical support and weapons, the United States and NATO allies could also provide medical equipment, services and even sanctuary during Russian offensives. The United States would almost certainly supply weapons, the officials said. (The New York Times, 01.14.22)
  • The U.K. has sent thousands of anti-tank weapons to Ukraine in a move meant to bolster the country’s defense against a potential Russian invasion, British officials have said. (U.K. Defence Journal, 01.19.22, The National Interest, 01.19.22)
  • The Ukrainian Armed Forces expects to receive new helicopters, including five Mi-17V5s and one Mi-8MTV, as part of U.S. military aid. (Defense Blog, 01.17.22)
    • The Kremlin views statements heard from London and Washington on possible deliveries of weapons to Ukraine, including man-portable air defense systems (MANPADS), as "extremely dangerous" and as steps that would escalate tensions in the region, Russian presidential press secretary Dmitry Peskov said. (Interfax, 01.18.22)
  • Latvia and Lithuania confirmed Jan. 21 that they will send Stinger ground-to-air missiles to Ukraine, adding a major new capability to Kyiv’s ability to defend itself against a possible Russian incursion. The two countries were joined by fellow NATO member Estonia, who confirmed they would send Javelin anti-armor missiles to Ukraine in the coming days. The State Department quietly signed off on the transfers this week, as required by U.S. export control regulations for the American-made weapons. (Politico, 01.21.22) 
  • Canada is loaning up to $120 million to the Ukrainian government amid the ongoing crisis with neighboring Russia, in addition to an earlier deployment of special forces. (Global News, 01.21.22)
  • Denmark has decided to allocate about $25 million to a comprehensive new support program to Ukraine. (Danish Ministry of Foreign Affairs, 01.16.22)
  • Germany has declined to ship weapons to Ukraine, citing fears of increased tensions and negative historical precedent. (DW, 01.19.22)
  • The U.S. is preparing financial sanctions on pro-Russian separatists in Ukraine, U.S. officials said. (The Wall Street Journal, 01.18.22)
  • As part of the deployment of the Territorial Defense System in Ukraine, more than 150 battalions will be created, each soldier of which will be assigned a weapon, the press service of the Ukrainian Defense Ministry reported on Jan. 18. (Interfax, 01.18.22)
  • Russia’s Communist Party on Jan. 19 submitted a proposal to the State Duma requesting recognition of separatist-held territories in eastern Ukraine as “sovereign and independent states,” and for Russia to provide security assistance against “external threats” and “genocide.” (The Moscow Times/AFP, 01.20.22)
  • Ukraine increased imports of hard coal and anthracite by 15.4% in 2021 year-on-year (by 2.6 tons) up to 19.6 tons. Ukraine received $545.208 million worth of coal (62% of imports) from Russia, $494.636 million (20%) from the United States, $253.469 million (10%) from Kazakhstan and $195.383 million (8%) worth of coal from other countries. (Interfax, 01.18.22)
  • A language law came into force in Ukraine on Jan. 16 that requires all national print media to be published in the country’s official language, Ukrainian, in a bid to push back against the use of the Russian language in the public sphere. The law, adopted in 2019, does not ban publication in Russian but stipulates that a parallel Ukrainian version of equal scope and circulation must be published, too. (RFE/RL, 01.16.22)
  • A court in Ukraine ruled on Jan. 19 that former president and opposition politician, Petro Poroshenko, could await trial while released on his own recognizance, in a positive sign for domestic political stability in the country. (The New York Times, 01.19.22)
    • "The United States is closely following the case against former President Poroshenko," the U.S. Embassy in Kyiv wrote on Twitter when charges were announced last year. "Crucial that process and outcome be based on the rule of law, not politics." (The Wall Street Journal, 01.17.22)
  • Data collected on Instagram shows that 50% of Ukrainian users post in Russian, 46% in Ukrainian and 4% in English, researcher Sven Etienne Peterson tweeted Jan. 14. (bne IntelliNews, 01.19.22)

Russia's other post-Soviet neighbors:

  • Kazakhstan's leaders have taken further steps to replace government officials and concentrate the powers of President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev by stripping former President Nursultan Nazarbaev of lifetime posts a week after deadly protests swept across the country. Tokayev replaced Defense Minister Murat Bektanov on Jan. 19 with Ruslan Zhaqsylyqov, formerly a deputy interior minister. Close relatives of Nazarbaev have lost their posts as the government moves to purge or squeeze members of his extended family in the wake of unprecedented political turmoil. (RFE/RL, 01.19.22, RFE/RL, 01.17.22)
  • Nazarbaev has denied any conflict with his successor after deadly anti-government protests in the oil-rich Central Asian state earlier this month triggered allegations of a power struggle. (RFE/RL, 01.18.22)
  • The head of Kyrgyzstan's State Customs Service, Adilet Kubanychbekov, has been arrested on accusations of corruption. The State Committee for National Security said Jan. 17 that Kubanychbekov and his subordinates were suspected of receiving bribes to illegally create advantages for some import firms. (RFE/RL, 01.18.22)
  • Rosatom and Kyrgyzstan agreed to cooperate in the construction of a small nuclear power plant. (Rosatom, 01.20.22)
  • Belarusian leader Alexander Lukashenko has said that joint military maneuvers will be held with Russia in February close to the borders with Ukraine as well as eastern NATO member states. Speaking during a meeting with Belarusian military officials on Jan. 17, Lukashenko said that the exact dates of the drills had not been determined yet. He did not specify how many troops would be involved. (RFE/RL, 01.17.22.)
    • Russian troops tried to hide tactical signs and hull numbers of its fighting vehicles and main battle tanks which are deployed to areas near the border between Belarus and Ukraine. (Defense Blog, 01.20.22)
  • A bomb threat Belarus used to justify the diversion of a Ryanair flight last year was "deliberately false," according to the U.N. civil aviation agency's report on the incident. (RFE/RL, 01.20.22)
  • Turkey's Ministry of Transport and Infrastructure says flights to and from Armenia will resume next month as the two neighbors continue discussions aimed at normalizing bilateral ties after years of animosity. (RFE/RL, 01.19.22)
  • The chief of the General Staff of the Armenian military, Gen. Artak Davtian, former Defense Minister Davit Tonoyan, and several other officials went on trial Jan. 19 on fraud and embezzlement charges related to purchases of faulty weaponry and ammunition for the armed forces. (RFE/RL, 01.19.22)

 

IV. Quoteworthy

  • "[Putin] is his own foreign minister and his own defense minister," said former U.S. national security adviser John Bolton, who has met with Putin several times, including in Moscow in October 2018. (The Wall Street Journal, 01.20.22)
  • The Kremlin's strategy is to "hold Ukraine hostage for something much bigger: the final retreat of NATO and an attempt to drive the U.S. out of Europe,” according to Fiona Hill, a former U.S. national intelligence officer for Russia and Eurasia who served as the top Russia expert on Trump's National Security Council. (The Wall Street Journal, 01.20.22)