Russia in Review, July 7-14, 2017

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

Nuclear security and safety:

  • "We are a tremendously powerful nuclear power, and so are they," President Donald Trump said of Russia in a July 12 interview. “It doesn't make sense not to have some kind of a relationship." (RFE/RL, 07.12.17)

Iran’s nuclear program and related issues:

  • No significant developments.

Military issues, including NATO-Russia relations:

  • Ambassadors to NATO squared off with Russian diplomats in Brussels on July 13 over Moscow’s planned military exercises near the Western bloc’s borders, with NATO officials expressing concern that the number of Russian and Belarussian troops taking part would be much higher than claimed. (Wall Street Journal, 07.13.17)
  • NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg has characterized the latest session of the NATO-Russia Council on July 13 as a "frank and useful discussion" of Ukraine, Afghanistan and risk reduction, despite continued “fundamental disagreements" between the alliance and Moscow, particularly regarding Russia's 2014 annexation of Crimea and Moscow’s role in the war in eastern Ukraine. Speaking in Kiev a few days earlier, Stoltenberg affirmed NATO’s "unwavering support" for Ukraine's territorial integrity and called on Russia to remove its "thousands of soldiers from Ukraine and stop supporting the militants with command-and-control and military equipment." (RFE/RL, 07.13.17, 07.10.17)
  • The United States deployed a battery of Patriot long-range anti-aircraft missiles in Lithuania to be used in NATO war games July 11—the first time the advanced defense system has been brought to the Baltics where Russia has air superiority. The battery was brought to the Siauliai military airbase July 10, ahead of the Tobruk Legacy exercise, and will be withdrawn when the exercise ends July 22. The NATO war games take place ahead of the large-scale Zapad 2017 exercise by Russia and Belarus, which NATO officials believe could bring more than 100,000 troops to the borders of Poland and the three Baltic NATO allies—the biggest such Russian maneuvers since 2013. (Reuters, 07.10.17)
  • NATO and Russian pilots are reviving a Cold War contest of nerves, increasing the risk that airborne close encounters could accidentally spark a conflict. Over the past three years, the number of adversarial flights near the other side's planes and ships has increased significantly. The tactic, usually meant as a show of force or used to test tactics, revives a dormant game of chicken long played by Soviet and North Atlantic Treaty Organization pilots. (Wall Street Journal, 07.12.17)
  • See also “Missile defense,” “Russia’s general foreign policy and relations with ‘far abroad’ countries” and “Ukraine” sections below.

Missile defense:

  • Estonia, a NATO member that shares a border with Russia, wants to enhance its defensive capabilities with anti-aircraft weapons and is discussing a more permanent deployment with other countries inside the military alliance. While air-defense systems have been stationed in the Baltic nation temporarily during military exercises, the government is holding “working-level” talks for a longer-term presence since it can’t afford to purchase them itself, according to Defense Minister Juri Luik. (Bloomberg, 07.13.17)

Nuclear arms control:

  • The U.S. Congress is moving decisively to start dismantling some of the bedrock agreements of U.S.-Russian arms control, reflecting the dangerous state of relations between Washington and Moscow and raising the specter of a new arms race. In a series of measures attached to the proposed $696 billion defense budget for 2018, Republican-led lawmakers have taken aim at the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, as well as the Open Skies and even New START treaties. All three are widely considered cornerstones of stability for global arms control, and the measures' likely passage signals a sharp break from years of U.S. policy. (RFE/RL, 07.12.17)


  • No significant developments.

Conflict in Syria:

  • Trump said July 12 that the cease-fire deal brokered with the Russians in Syria is an example of the success he has achieved with Putin so far: "One thing we did is we had a cease-fire in a major part of Syria where there was tremendous bedlam and tremendous killing… The cease-fire has held for four days… That's because President Putin and President Trump made the deal." (RFE/RL, 07.12.17)
  • The first attempt by the Trump administration to cooperate with Russia on an international crisis got underway on July 9, with the implementation of a cease-fire in southwestern Syria that appeared to be widely holding 24 hours later. The agreement was the first publicized achievement of last week’s meeting between presidents Trump and Putin. Both countries’ officials are calling it a “de-escalation,” reflecting the modest expectations for success after several previous failed attempts. The cease-fire, negotiated by the United States, Russia and Jordan, applies to a strategic area near Syria’s border with Jordan and the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights—an area viewed with increased concern by both Israel and Jordan over advances made by Iranian-backed militias fighting alongside the Syrian government, including Hezbollah. The agreement followed weeks of secretive talks in Amman and signals U.S. acquiescence to a broader Russian plan to end the violence by creating a series of de-escalation zones around the country. Representatives of Syria’s warring parties gathered in Geneva on July 10 for their seventh round of peace talks. (The Washington Post, 07.09.17, New York Times, 07.10.17, AP, 07.09.17)
    • Trump has called for expanded cooperation with Russia over Syria as the cease-fire came into effect, tweeting: “We negotiated a ceasefire in parts of Syria which will save lives. Now it is time to move forward in working constructively with Russia!” (AP, 07.09.17)
    • Russia has said it is willing to deploy monitors to prevent any violations of the ceasefire by Syrian government forces, a senior U.S. official said on July 13, adding that the United States was "very encouraged" by the progress since the ceasefire took effect. (Reuters, 07.13.17)
  • The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights told Reuters on July 11 that it had "confirmed information" that Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi has been killed. Russia's Defense Ministry said in June that it might have killed Baghdadi when one of its air strikes hit a gathering of IS commanders on the outskirts of Raqqa. But Washington said it could not corroborate the death and Western and Iraqi officials have been skeptical. Reuters could not independently verify Baghdadi's death. (Reuters, 07.11.17)

Cyber security:

  • President Trump late on July 9 stepped back from his proposal to work with Russia on establishing a cybersecurity unit to prevent hacking and election meddling after he received blistering criticism from his own party. “The fact that President Putin and I discussed a Cyber Security unit doesn’t mean I think it can happen. It can’t,” he tweeted. Earlier in the day Trump said in a tweet that during their July 7 meeting in Hamburg he and Putin had “discussed forming an impenetrable Cyber Security unit so that election hacking, & many other negative things, will be guarded and safe." (RFE/RL, 07.10.16)
  • The private email account of a State Department official working in the agency’s secretive intelligence arm focusing on Russia has been hacked. There’s no evidence proving Russian hackers targeted the official, but the first media outlet to pick up on the hack was an obscure website in Crimea, which published specific emails and provided a link to the cache. A former employee of the website had claimed that it is financed by the Russian secret service, and its topics assigned by top political leadership in Moscow. (Foreign Policy, 07.14.17)
  • Bloomberg reported this week that Russian cybersecurity software firm Kaspersky Lab has developed products for the FSB, Russia’s main intelligence agency, and accompanied agents on raids. The Trump administration has discouraged U.S. government agencies from using Kaspersky software amid fears that the firm's products could serve as a Trojan horse for the Kremlin's hackers. (Politico, 07.11.17)
    • Eugene Kaspersky, the firm’s CEO, had a big American dream: He wanted his company to go beyond selling anti-virus software to consumers and small businesses and become a major vendor to the U.S. government—one of the world's biggest buyers of cybersecurity tools. But Kaspersky was never able to overcome lingering suspicions among U.S. intelligence officials that he and his company were, or could become, pawns of Russia's spy agencies. (Reuters, 07.14.17)
  • Russia’s Foreign Ministry claimed on July 14 that it experienced “large-scale” cyberattacks originating in Iran and Hungary last month. (The Moscow Times, 07.14.17)

Russia’s interference in U.S. elections:

  • Investigators at the House and Senate Intelligence committees and the Justice Department are examining whether the Trump campaign’s digital operation—overseen by Jared Kushner—helped guide Russia’s sophisticated voter targeting and fake news attacks on Hillary Clinton in 2016. (McClatchy, 07.12.17)
  • President Trump’s eldest son, Donald Trump, Jr., was offered "high level and sensitive information" in June 2016, described as "part of Russia and its government’s support for Mr. Trump,” according to emails that he released July 11. The emails said that a person described as a Russian government attorney had “official documents and information" that would “incriminate” Hillary Clinton “and be very useful to your father." Trump Jr. responded: “If it’s what you say I love it.” The offer led within days to a meeting at Trump Tower with Trump Jr. and two other high-level campaign officials, Jared Kushner, Donald Trump’s son-in-law and advisor, and Paul Manafort, who was the campaign chairman at the time. (Los Angeles Times, 07.11.17, New York Times, 07.09.17)
    • The emails show that the younger Trump was approached by a music publicist, Rob Goldstone, who represented Russian pop star Emin Agalarov. The pop star's father, Aras Agalarov, is a Russian real estate developer reportedly close to President Putin. The Agalarovs and President Trump had met through previous business dealings, and they were close enough that Trump made a cameo in one of Emin Agalarov's music videos, filmed when Trump visited Moscow in 2013. (The Washington Post, 07.12.17)
    • On June 7, 2016, four days after Goldstone’s first contact with Trump, Jr., and two days before the scheduled meeting at Trump Tower, then-candidate Trump promised in a speech that there would be big news about Hillary Clinton’s crimes on “probably June 13th,” suggesting that he knew of the offer of compromising materials against his rival. (Talking Points Memo, 07.11.17)
    • The attorney with whom Trump, Jr., met is Natalia Veselnitskaya. She does not work for the Russian government and has said that she “did not have an assignment from the Kremlin” or “orders from the government." She has been identified by some American news organizations as "Kremlin-connected," which is not very precise. While the public record does not suggest Veselnitskaya has close links to Russia’s senior-most leadership, she has represented Russian state-owned companies and has ties to Russian provincial officials, as well as a reputation as something of a rainmaker in commercial disputes in the Moscow region. (The Washington Post, 07.11.17, 07.11.17, RFE/RL, 07.10.17)
    • Prior to her controversial meeting with Trump, Jr., Veselnitskaya drew the attention and ire of American officials over her lobbying against the 2012 Magnitsky Act, a sanctions-related U.S. law despised by the Kremlin, and over a reimbursement request for more than $50,000 handed to U.S. authorities. Veselnitskaya’s face-to-face with the Trump campaign also came months after she told a U.S. federal court that she had been denied a U.S. visa but was granted an exception to defend a Russian businessman in a money-laundering case closely watched by top officials in Moscow. The businessman, Denis Katsyv, was accused in a federal civil-forfeiture case in New York of laundering funds obtained through a multi-million-dollar fraud uncovered by Russian tax auditor Sergei Magnitsky, who died in a Russian jail after not getting needed medical attention. Katsyv’s father was a senior official with state-owned Russian Railways, run at the time by a close ally of Putin’s. (RFE/RL, 07.10.17, The Washington Post, 07.11.17)
    • A Soviet military intelligence officer turned lobbyist attended the meeting, NBC News reported July 14. Rinat Akhmetshin, a Russian-born lobbyist who since at least last year has been working with Veselnitskaya to overturn the Magnitsky Act, confirmed his participation in the meeting to the AP. He said that Trump Jr. had asked Veselnitskaya for information on illicit money flowing into the Democratic National Committee but that Veselnitskaya had nothing substantive to provide. CNN reported that at least eight people were present at the meeting, including Goldstone, a translator and a representative of the Agalarov family. (Business Insider, 07.14.17, CNN, 07.14.17)
    • It is difficult to conceive of a scenario in which a private citizen in Russia has access to derogatory information on a U.S. presidential candidate. The act of offering such information was likely, at minimum, a trial balloon [by the intelligence services], and at best (from Moscow’s perspective), a chance to pass certain information from an agent of the Russian government to the Trump campaign. Veselnitskaya may have had her own agenda in requesting a meeting with Trump. But Russian intelligence practice is to co-opt such a person by arming them with secret intelligence information and tasking them to pass it on and get a reaction. Did Trump’s people like it? Do they want more? Based on what we now know, this interaction had all the hallmarks of an overture by Russian intelligence to the campaign. (Just Security, 07.11.17)
    • The Republican chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee said July 13 that he would call on Trump, Jr., to testify amid investigations into Russian meddling in last year's election and would subpoena him if necessary. (AP, 07.12.17)
    • The president said July 12 that he had been unaware of the meeting until a few days earlier. He has defended his son since news of the meeting broke this week. “My son, Donald, … is a great person who loves our country!” he tweeted. “This is the greatest Witch Hunt in political history.” Speaking to reporters in Paris on July 13 Trump said: "Most people would have taken that meeting. It's called opposition research, or research into your opponent." (Reuters, 07.12.17, Twitter, 07.11.17, Twitter, 07.12.17, AP, 07.13.17)
    • Could the meeting have been against the law? Legal experts said that depends on whether the aid promised to Trump, Jr., could be counted as a "thing of value" for legal purposes and whether he could be said to have "solicited" it by agreeing to the meeting. It is illegal, under U.S. law, for a campaign to solicit or accept any contributions from foreign nationals or foreign governments. (The Washington Post, 07.12.17)
    • Investigators are re-examining conversations detected by U.S. intelligence agencies in spring 2015 that captured Russian government officials discussing associates of Donald Trump, according to current and former U.S. officials, a move prompted by revelations about the younger Trump’s meeting with Veselnitskaya. In some cases, the Russians in the overheard conversations talked about meetings held outside the U.S. involving Russian government officials and Trump business associates or advisers, these people said. (Wall Street Journal, 07.12.17)
    • The Kremlin said July 12 that the release of the email chain was part of a "long-running TV drama," dismissing an alleged Russian government offer to pass on information to damage Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign. "There is nothing to investigate," Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said. (Wall Street Journal, 07.12.17)
  • Trump's pick to head the FBI, Christopher Wray, on July 12 said he would refuse to pledge loyalty to Trump, rejected his description of the probe into Russian election meddling as a "witch hunt" and vowed to quit if asked by the president to do something unlawful. (Reuters, 07.12.17)
  • A review of the public record reveals that Trump owes much of his business success, and by extension his presidency, to a flow of highly suspicious money from Russia. Over the past three decades, at least 13 people with known or alleged links to Russian mobsters or oligarchs have owned, lived in and even run criminal activities out of Trump Tower and other Trump properties. Many used his apartments and casinos to launder millions in dirty money. Some ran a worldwide high-stakes gambling ring out of Trump Tower—in a unit directly below one owned by Trump. (New Republic, 07.13.17)
  • A small group of Democratic members of Congress have renewed their efforts to find possible links between banks, Trump and Russia, demanding the U.S. Treasury Secretary hand over any relevant documents in his possession, including records of loans or credit from a number of banks—including Deutsche Bank and at least two Russian lenders—to Trump, some of his closest family members and a list of associates. (Reuters, 07.14.17)
  • Amid all the controversy over Russian hacking, interference and propaganda efforts in the United States and Europe, there’s a growing concern among national security leaders that not enough is being done to stop the efforts. That’s why a large group of senior figures from both parties is launching a new effort to track and ultimately counter Russian political meddling, cyber-mischief and fake news. (The Washington Post, 07.11.17)
  • Speaking to reporters on Air Force One on July 12, Trump offered his first extended account of the closed-door meeting he held with Putin last week in Germany. “I said to him, ‘Were you involved in the meddling with the election?’” Trump recalled. “He said, ‘Absolutely not. I was not involved.’ He was very strong on it. I then said to him, in a totally different way, ‘Were you involved with the meddling?’ He said, ‘I was not—absolutely not.’” At that point, Trump said, Putin shifted the conversation to the war in Syria and the president let the subject change because, “What do you do? End up in a fistfight?” Trump said he had not asked Putin a question he wanted to ask: “Who were you really for? Because I can’t believe that he would have been for me. Me. Strong military, strong borders—he doesn’t care about borders—but strong military. Tremendous.” When a reporter asked the president to respond to Putin’s assertion that Trump had accepted his denial of Russian involvement, Trump said: “He didn’t say that… He said, ‘I think he accepted it, but you’ll have to ask him.’ That’s a big difference.” (New York Times, 07.13.17)
  • In “Trump Country,” the Russia scandal doesn't resonate. (Tennessean/USA Today, 07.12.17)

Energy exports from CIS:

  • No significant developments.

Bilateral economic ties:

  • Uber and Yandex, the "Google of Russia," have agreed to combine their Russian ride-sharing businesses, with Yandex the leading partner in a deal that extends to five nearby markets. Shares in Russia's largest internet company leapt almost 20% as investors bet the deal could accelerate the move of Yandex's taxi business into profitability. (Reuters, 07.13.17)

Other bilateral issues:

  • Russia will “take retaliatory measures” if the United States does not heed its demands for a return of diplomatic assets seized in the last days of the Obama administration, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said July 11. Moscow is “now thinking of specific steps," he said. On July 14 Russia said that too many American spies operated in Moscow under diplomatic cover and said it might expel some of them. A Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman suggested Moscow’s decisions could hinge on the outcome of diplomatic talks with the U.S. set for July 17 in Washington, saying that Moscow expects "substantial" proposals on improving relations. The meeting between Undersecretary of State Thomas Shannon and Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov is supposed to focus on “so-called irritants,” the State Department said. (RFE/RL, 07.11.17, 07.14.17, Reuters, 07.14.17, The Washington Post, 07.11.17)
  • The Congressional House speaker pledged on July 12 to pass a "strong, bold" Russia sanctions bill even as Trump's spy chief voiced concerns over the legislation, reportedly saying it would affect the "ability to do his work and his job.” The legislation has been stalled amid Capitol infighting and the White House has been pressing Republican lawmakers to hold out for changes. (AP, 07.12.17, New York Times, 07.12.17)
  • Trump said in a July 12 interview that he and Putin "get along very well" and “that's a good thing. That's not a bad thing." Speaking to Christian Broadcasting Network founder Pat Robertson, Trump said, "People said, 'Oh they shouldn't get along.' Well, who are the people that are saying that? I think we get along very, very well." (RFE/RL, 07.12.17)
  • Trump took a swipe at his 2016 presidential rival, Hillary Clinton, saying Putin would have been happier had Clinton won the election because, under her, U.S. military strength would have been "decimated": "We are the most powerful country in the world, and we are getting more and more powerful because I'm a big military person," Trump said July 12. "If Hillary had won, our military would be decimated… From day one, I wanted a strong military. He [Putin] doesn't want to see that." (RFE/RL, 07.12.17)
  • Nearly half of respondents in a recent Russian survey said the Hamburg meeting between Trump and Putin was positive for Russia. (Center on Global Interests, 07.14.17)
  • On a Washington radio station known for broadcasting the high and lonesome sound of bluegrass, the fiddles recently fell silent, replaced by a very different kind of programming: Russian state media. Sputnik, like news outlet Russia Today, is a project of the Russian government. Available only online in the United States until last month, the station, with a staff of 40, now reaches radio listeners 24 hours a day in the D.C. region—its only terrestrial radio presence in the country. (The Washington Post, 07.12.17)

II. Russia’s foreign affairs, trade and investment

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

  • Turkey has agreed to pay $2.5 billion to acquire Russia’s most advanced missile defense system, a senior Turkish official said, in a deal that signals a turn away from the NATO military alliance that has anchored Turkey to the West for more than six decades. (Bloomberg, 07.13.17)
  • Russia is planning its biggest military exercise in years, and its neighbor Finland is going underground. A subterranean city beneath Helsinki forms a crucial line of defense for the capital. Finnish soldiers routinely train here, with a mission to keep Finland’s government running and city residents safe in a network that features more than 124 miles of tunnels, passageways and shelters. (Wall Street Journal, 07.14.17)


  • A new road-mobile Iskander-M missile system was reportedly delivered to a Ground Forces brigade in Russia’s Eastern Military District in June 2017; its primary purpose seems to be to strengthen Russia’s conventional and nuclear deterrence against China. (The Diplomat, 07.12.17)


  • Ukrainian and EU leaders ended a two-day summit July 13 that celebrated their growing closeness while also highlighting points of tension between the two sides. A disagreement over wording about Ukraine’s “European aspirations” left organizers without a final summit communiqué, showing “a lack of unity,” according to one diplomat. (Politico, 07.13.17)
    • Corruption is undermining all efforts to rebuild Ukraine in line with EU norms, European Commission chief Jean-Claude Juncker said on July 13, as President Petro Poroshenko vowed to pursue ever-closer integration with the bloc. (Reuters, 07.13.17)
  • The European Union's 28 member states have formally endorsed the EU-Ukraine Association Agreement, the final step in the ratification process after years of political twists and turns. The deal, which strengthens ties between the EU and Kiev, will enter into force on Sept. 1. Russia has indicated that it objects to the trade-related part of the EU-Ukraine agreement, called the Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Area. Minutes of a June 29 meeting of the WTO’s Committee on Regional Trade Agreements that were published on July 11 record Russia's representative as saying the EU-Ukraine DCFTA was "an exemplary case of a situation where a free trade area worsened trade conditions for other trading partners." (RFE/RL, 07.11.17)
  • Ukraine will begin discussions with NATO on an action plan to get the country into the U.S.-led alliance, its leader said on July 10, while Kiev would work on reforms to meet membership standards by 2020. President Petro Poroshenko, whose country is fighting a Kremlin-backed insurgency in eastern Ukraine, revived the prospect of NATO membership during a visit by NATO Secretary-general Jens Stoltenberg. The Kremlin quickly responded that Ukraine's potential membership in NATO would not boost stability and security in Europe. Most observers say any prospect of NATO membership for Ukraine is years off. No dates were issued for when talks on a membership action plan might begin and Poroshenko himself said: "This does not mean that we will soon be applying for membership." (Reuters, 07.10.17, Reuters, 07.10.17)
  • Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson assured Ukraine’s leader on July 9 that the United States would not lift economic sanctions against Russia until it “reverses the actions” that prompted them and restores the country’s “territorial integrity,” appearing to set the same high bar for sanctions relief that the Obama administration did. (New York Times, 07.09.17)
  • Siemens, one of Germany’s biggest companies, said July 10 that it had become an unwilling pawn in a scheme to evade sanctions against Russia and break a de facto blockade of electricity to the annexed territory Crimea. Siemens said a Russian customer—with close ties to the Kremlin—had illegally shipped two power-plant turbines to Crimea instead of their intended destination in southern Russia, flouting an agreement not to violate sanctions imposed by the international community after Russia annexed the territory from Ukraine in 2014. The incident threatens to strain relations between the countries. Germany’s ambassador to Moscow reportedly said that Russia will have seriously hurt its prospects for attracting investment if it is confirmed that Siemens-made turbines were delivered to Crimea. (New York Times, 07.10.17, Reuters, 07.11.17, RFE/RL, 07.10.17)

Russia’s other post-Soviet neighbors:

  • As Georgia seeks to pressure the international community to respond robustly to attempts by its breakaway republic of South Ossetia to encroach on its territory by shifting border markers, a new political crisis is building in its other breakaway region, Abkhazia, where the opposition has repeatedly called for the resignation of de facto leader Raul Khajimba, who won praise from a Kremlin emissary earlier this month. (RFE/RL, 07.10.17)

III. Russia’s domestic news

Politics, economy and energy:

  • Lawmakers from the Russian Republic of Tatarstan have appealed to Moscow to extend a power-sharing treaty between the capital and the region that is set to expire later this month. (RFE/RL, 07.12.17)

Defense and aerospace:

  • The Russian Navy is looking to increase the size of its smaller ships in order to increase their armament and endurance. (Russian Military Reform blog, 07.11.17)
  • Russia is apparently ready to build two terrifying weapons of war: A 100-ton ballistic missile that can destroy countries and a train that can carry and fire six nuclear missiles, according to Pravda, the Communist Party's outlet in Russia. (Business Insider, 07.11.17)

Security, law-enforcement and justice:

  • A Russian court has sentenced five men convicted of killing opposition politician Boris Nemtsov to prison terms ranging from 11 to 20 years. Ramzan Kadyrov, the Kremlin-installed head of Chechnya, criticized the conviction and sentencing, calling the evidence “doubtful” and described the five men—all of them ethnic Chechens with ties to Kadyrov’s security forces—as “completely innocent." (RFE/RL, 07.13.17, 07.14.17)
  • An investigation by Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta says that a Russian senator tasked with “protecting sovereignty and fighting foreign interference in Russian affairs” has ties to offshore companies in Cyprus and the British Virgin Islands. (Russia Matters, 07.13.17)