Russia in Review, June 26-July 1, 2020
This Week’s Highlights
- U.S. intelligence officials have concluded that Russian military intelligence offered bounties to Taliban-linked militants to kill U.S. and coalition forces in Afghanistan, the New York Times reported. According to the New York Times, Russian military intelligence (GRU) Unit 29155 was behind the bounties. Additionally, U.S. officials have intercepted data showing financial transfers between a GRU unit and Taliban-linked accounts, The New York Times reported. U.S. President Donald Trump denies he has been briefed on the reported finding, according to RFE/RL, while the Russian envoy to Afghanistan called the intelligence “an outright fake,” The Washington Post reports.
- When negotiators from the U.S. and Russia met in Vienna last week to discuss renewing the last major nuclear arms control treaty that still exists between the two countries, American officials surprised their counterparts with a classified briefing on new and threatening nuclear capabilities—not Russia’s, but China’s, the New York Times reports. The American message was clear: Trump will not renew any major arms control treaty that China does not also join.
- Nearly three-quarters of Russian voters have backed constitutional changes that pave the way for extending Russian President Vladimir Putin’s rule until 2036, according to the Russian election commission’s preliminary results, The Moscow Times reports.
- Russia is sending reinforcements to Libya to help military leader Khalifa Haftar, who is on the defensive after a failed effort to topple the country's U.N.-backed government, as Moscow seeks to shape the fate of the nation and its vast oil reserves, the Wall Street Journal reports.
- Putin told his counterparts from Turkey and Iran on July 1 that there was a need for peaceful dialogue between the opposing forces in Syria’s civil war, Reuters reports. During the same call, Iranian President Hassan Rohani told Putin and Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan that the "illegitimate" presence of U.S. forces in Syria should end immediately, RFE/RL reports.
- Faced with a spike in coronavirus cases, both Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan are re-imposing measures in some areas, according to RFE/RL. An Uzbek government commission said that as of July 1, public transportation will be limited and no more than three people will be allowed to gather between 7 a.m. and 11 p.m. on weekends in regions with registered coronavirus cases, while Kazakhstan's government has presented a plan to reintroduce lockdown measures, with a second lockdown that would start on July 5 and last for at least 14 days.
I. U.S. and Russian priorities for the bilateral agenda
Nuclear security and safety:
- Russia has denied that its nuclear power stations in the northwest of the country were responsible for a mild leak of radiation detected in Scandinavia last week. Rosenergoatom, the power-plant subsidiary of state-owned nuclear group Rosatom, said its installations near St. Petersburg and Murmansk were operating normally. The International Atomic Energy Agency on June 29 said it had asked European countries for data. Twenty-nine countries responded, but not Russia. (Financial Times, 06.28.20, Business Insider, 06.29.20)
North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs:
- No significant developments.
Iran and its nuclear program:
- U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on June 30 was set to call on the U.N. Security Council to extend a five-year ban on conventional weapons trade with Iran, which is due to expire in October. Pompeo warned that an Iranian purchase of Russian-made aircraft would place "cities like Riyadh, New Delhi, Rome and Warsaw in Iranian crosshairs." (Wall Street Journal, 06.30.20)
New Cold War/saber rattling:
- U.S. intelligence officials have concluded that Russian military intelligence offered bounties to Taliban-linked militants to kill U.S. and coalition forces in Afghanistan, the New York Times reported. According to the New York Times, Russian military intelligence (GRU) Unit 29155, which has been accused in assassinations on foreign territory, sabotage and at least one coup attempt, was behind the bounties. U.S. officials have intercepted data showing financial transfers between a GRU unit and Taliban-linked accounts, The New York Times reported June 30, citing three unnamed officials familiar with the intelligence. (RFE/RL, 06.27.20, The Washington Post, 06.29.20, The Moscow Times, 07.01.20)
- U.S. President Donald Trump denies he has been briefed on the reported finding. “Nobody briefed or told me” or Vice President Mike Pence or chief of staff Mark Meadows about “the so-called attacks on our troops in Afghanistan by Russians,” Trump tweeted on June 28. Trump then said late June 28 that he was not told of intelligence that a Russian military spy unit offered bounties to Taliban-linked militants to attack coalition forces in Afghanistan, including U.S. troops, because U.S. intelligence officials did not find it credible. (RFE/RL, 06.28.20, The Washington Post, 06.29.20)
- Trump was not verbally briefed on a reported Russian effort to pay the Taliban to kill U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan because the allegations were not corroborated at the time, White House national security adviser Robert O’Brien said July 1. Kayleigh McEnany, White House press secretary, said in a statement on June 27 that the CIA director, national security adviser and the chief of staff “can all confirm that neither the president nor the vice-president were briefed on the alleged Russian bounty intelligence.” (Financial Times, 06.28.20, Reuters, 07.01.20)
- Top officials in the White House were aware in early 2019 of classified intelligence indicating Russia was secretly offering bounties to the Taliban for the deaths of Americans. The assessment was included in at least one of Trump’s written daily intelligence briefings at the time, according to the officials. Then-national security adviser John Bolton also told colleagues he briefed Trump on the intelligence assessment in March 2019. (AP, 06.29.20)
- U.S. intelligence officers and Special Operations forces in Afghanistan alerted their superiors as early as January to a suspected Russian plot to pay bounties to the Taliban to kill American troops in Afghanistan, according to officials briefed on the matter. They believed at least one U.S. troop death was the result of the bounties, the officials said. (New York Times, 06.28.20)
- Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi said she was outraged to learn about the assessment and called for the Trump administration to hold Russia accountable. Pelosi said June 28 that top members of the House and Senate, known as the Gang of Eight, weren't briefed on the American intelligence assessment. Leading Democratic lawmaker Steny Hoyer called on Trump on July 1 to make top U.S. intelligence officials available to the full House of Representatives for a briefing on the reports. (Wall Street Journal, 06.28.20, Reuters, 07.01.20)
- "If true, this is outrageous conduct by Russia," Rep. Ted Lieu, a member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said in a Twitter message. Trump, he wrote, "is putting U.S. troops' lives at risk by doing nothing." Reps. Mac Thornberry and Liz Cheney are reportedly calling for consequences for Russia. (Wall Street Journal, 06.27.20, RFE/RL, 06.30.20)
- The Russian Foreign Ministry said the intelligence was concocted by U.S. agents who “do not like that our and their diplomats have teamed up to facilitate the start of peace talks between Kabul and the Taliban.” (The Washington Post, 06.29.20)
- Zamir Kabulov, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s envoy to Afghanistan, on June 29 called the intelligence “an outright fake, that even Trump and his administration has denied.” “It is clear that there are forces in the United States who do not want to leave Afghanistan, who want to justify their own failure,” he said. “That’s what this is all about.” (The Washington Post, 06.29.20)
- The Russian embassy in the U.S. tweeted that the news reports have led to direct threats to the life of employees of the embassies in Washington and London. (Wall Street Journal, 06.28.20)
- A spokesman for the Taliban leadership said on June 27 that the group "strongly reject" the allegation. It insisted the Taliban "is not indebted to the beneficence of any intelligence organ or foreign country and neither is the [Taliban leadership] in need of anyone in specifying objectives." At the same time, three separate Taliban sources told Business Insider that they were aware of Russian bounty payments being made—though they stressed that only the less-disciplined elements on the fringes of the group would take up such an offer. Iran and Pakistan also fund these activities, the sources said. (RFE/RL, 06.28.20, Business Insider, 07.01.20)
- NORAD U.S. warplanes intercepted four Russian reconnaissance aircraft near Alaska on June 27, U.S. commanders said. The Russian Tu-142's came within 65 nautical miles south of Alaska's Aleutian island chain and "loitered" in the Alaskan Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) for eight hours. (AFP, 06.28.20)
- For the first time in history the U.S. might purchase S-400 Russian air defense systems in a convoluted deal to pay Ankara not to work with Russia. Defense News reported that Senate Majority Whip John Thune has proposed an amendment to the 2021 National Defense Authorization Act that “would allow the purchase to be made using the U.S. Army’s missile procurement account.” (The Jerusalem Post, 06.30.20)
- U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper on June 29 was to present to the White House options to reduce the U.S. military presence in Germany by nearly 10,000 troops in what would be a dramatic reshaping of the U.S. presence in Europe. (Wall Street Journal, 06.29.20)
- No significant developments.
Nuclear arms control:
- No significant developments.
- The problems of terrorism and the destruction of the arms control system is a common agenda for Moscow and Paris, Putin told his French counterpart, Emmanuel Macron, during videoconference talks. (TASS, 06.26.20)
Conflict in Syria:
- Russian forces are encroaching on U.S. troop-controlled territory in eastern Syria—part of what officials say is a deliberate campaign to squeeze the U.S. military out of the region, according to two current U.S. officials and one former U.S. official. (Politico, 06.30.20)
- Putin told his counterparts from Turkey and Iran on July 1 that there was a need for peaceful dialogue between the opposing forces in Syria’s civil war. “An inclusive inter-Syrian dialogue should be actively promoted within the framework of the constitutional committee in Geneva. I propose to support this process, to help the participants to meet and start a direct dialogue,” Putin said. (Reuters, 07.01.20)
- The "illegitimate" presence of U.S. forces in Syria should end immediately, Iranian President Hassan Rohani told Putin and Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan in a video conference on July 1. (RFE/RL, 07.01.20)
- Over 1,000 Russian and Syrian troops took part in the military parade devoted to the 75th anniversary of the Soviet Union’s victory over Nazi Germany that was held at Russia’s Hmeymim airbase in Syria. (TASS, 06.24.20)
- No significant developments.
- No significant developments.
Energy exports from CIS:
- "Our view remains the same: nothing will stop the finalization of Nord Stream 2. And we leave to Germany and other EU member states to pass judgement on such U.S. measures [new sanctions]," Russia's ambassador to the EU, Vladimir Chizhov, said. (EU Observer, 06.30.20)
U.S.-Russian economic ties:
- No significant developments.
U.S.-Russian relations in general:
- The U.S. decision on requirements on export licenses for dual and defense products to Russia came into force on June 29. The list of such products now comprises various equipment and software for the operation of nuclear reactors, semiconductor instruments, measuring equipment and other materials capable of being used for defense purposes. (TASS, 06.30.20)
- Senior U.S. and European politicians have written to the Swiss government to express concerns over the independence of Switzerland’s federal prosecutor, Michael Lauber, and his connections to Russia. (Financial Times, 07.01.20)
- An American teacher who spent almost two years in a Russian jail for buying a cleaning product containing a banned chemical has flown back to the U.S., ABC News has reported. Gaylen Grandstaff, who with his Russian wife had taught English in Russia since 2011, was arrested in June 2017 in Moscow on suspicion of smuggling after he ordered detergent containing the banned substance. He faced up to 20 years in prison before the court unexpectedly released him in June 2019. (The Moscow Times, 06.30.20)
II. Russia’s domestic policies
Domestic politics, economy and energy:
- Russia confirmed 6,556 new coronavirus infections July 1, bringing the country’s official number of cases to 654,405. Over the past 24 hours, 216 people have died, bringing the total toll to 9,536. (The Moscow Times, 06.30.20) Here’s a link to RFE/RL’s interactive map of the virus’ spread around the world, including in Russia and the rest of post-Soviet Eurasia. For a comparison of the number and rate of change in new cases in the U.S. and Russia, visit this Russia Matters resource.
- A February report by a parliamentary financial body said that as of 2018, nearly a third of all Russia's medical facilities had no running water and more than half lacked hot water. Around 40 percent lacked central heating and in 35 percent the sewage didn't work, the report said. (Wall Street Journal, 06.28.20)
- Nearly three-quarters of Russian voters have backed constitutional changes that pave the way for extending Putin’s rule until 2036, according to the Russian election commission’s preliminary results released in the afternoon of July 1. (The Moscow Times, 07.01.20)
- Putin exhorted fellow Russians to vote for the slew of constitutional amendments. Standing before a new statue commemorating the efforts of Soviet soldiers during the second World War on the day before voting ended on July 1, Putin appealed to ordinary Russians’ patriotism and their desire for stability without mentioning the stark political implications the vote would have by resetting his term limits and allowing him to seek re-election twice more as president. (The Guardian, 06.30.20)
- Russian state pollster VTsIOM on June 29 published an exit poll showing a vast majority of Russians backing proposed constitutional reforms, days before the end of voting. Some 76 percent of respondents voted for the package of amendments, which range from better pensions and minimum wages to a reset of term limits that would allow Putin to run again in 2024 and potentially stay in power until 2036. (AFP, 06.29.20)
- Erik Kituashvili, a Russian car blogger with nearly four million followers, claimed he was offered $100,000 in exchange for urging fans to vote for the constitutional amendments. Katya Konasova, who reviews beauty products and online shopping sites for her 837,000 YouTube followers, claimed she was offered $14,000 for hinting “poignantly” that the amendments would be good for “motherhood and childhood.” (New York Times, 06.30.20)
- Russian cosmonaut Anatoly Ivanishin became the first person to vote online from the International Space Station on Tuesday, the Russian Space Agency Roscosmos announced. Ivanishin cast his ballot as part of a weeklong vote to approve constitutional reforms. (AFP, 06.30.20)
- Rosenergoatom, the operator subsidiary of Russian state nuclear corporation Rosatom, announced that preparatory work for the construction of four new reactors has commenced. Two VVER-TOI units are to be built at a new plant near the existing Smolensk site, while two VVER-1200 units will be built as units three and four of the Leningrad II plant. (World Nuclear News, 06.26.20)
- Russian lawmakers have passed legislation that will allow foreign tourists from 53 countries to visit Russia with an electronic visa starting next year, Kommersant reported June 29. Russia has previously introduced simplified e-visas for visitors to St. Petersburg, Kaliningrad and the Far East. While Russia closed its borders and stopped issuing visas to foreigners in March due to the coronavirus, tourism officials hope the e-visa expansion will inject much-needed revenue to a sector hit hard by the pandemic. (The Moscow Times, 06.29.20)
- The Russian Arctic set record temperatures in June that sparked abnormal tundra fires, the head of Russia's weather service said June 30, blaming climate change for the "fantastical" anomalies. (The Moscow Times, 06.30.20)
Defense and aerospace:
- No significant developments.
Security, law-enforcement and justice:
- No significant developments.
III. Russia’s relations with other countries
Russia’s general foreign policy and relations with “far abroad” countries:
- Russia is sending reinforcements to Libya to help military leader Khalifa Haftar, who is on the defensive after a failed effort to topple the country's U.N.-backed government, as Moscow seeks to shape the fate of the nation and its vast oil reserves. Private military contractors from Russia helped Haftar's forces take control of Libya's largest oil field last week, according to European and Libyan officials. (Wall Street Journal, 06.29.20)
- French President Emmanuel Macron said on June 27 that he plans to visit Russia "soon" to continue talks with Putin on key issues like security and climate change. "The trust-building dialogue initiated with President Putin at Fort Bregancon continue," Macron tweeted on June 27, adding, "We are moving forward and I will soon travel to Russia." (RFE/RL, 06.27.20)
- Russia on June 30 disclosed terms of a previously agreed debt restructuring with Venezuela that show annual payments from Caracas to Moscow increase five-fold starting in 2023. (Reuters, 06.30.20)
China-Russia: Allied or Aligned?
- When negotiators from the United States and Russia met in Vienna last week to discuss renewing the last major nuclear arms control treaty that still exists between the two countries, American officials surprised their counterparts with a classified briefing on new and threatening nuclear capabilities—not Russia’s, but China’s. The intelligence had not yet been made public in the U.S., or even shared widely with Congress. Marshall Billingslea, Trump’s new arms control negotiator, opened his classified briefing, officials said, by describing the Chinese program as a “crash nuclear buildup,” a “highly alarming effort” to gain parity with the far larger arsenals that Russia and the U.S. have kept for decades. The American message was clear: Trump will not renew any major arms control treaty that China does not also join. (New York Times, 06.30.20)
- EU member states have formally extended a six-month extension of economic sanctions imposed against Russia over its role in the ongoing conflict in Ukraine. The European Council decided on June 29 to roll over the restrictive measures until Jan. 31, 2021, because the "full implementation" of the Minsk agreements that sought to put an end to fighting in eastern Ukraine "has not yet been achieved," the council said in a statement. (RFE/RL, 06.29.20)
- Macron called for the implementation of agreements approved at the Paris summit of the Normandy Four group (comprising Russia, France, Germany and Ukraine) in December 2019, the Elysee Palace said on June 26 after Macron’s talks with Putin via video call. "Regarding the intra-Ukrainian conflict, concern was expressed over a lack of progress in the implementation of the key provisions of the 2015 Minsk Agreements and decisions adopted at summits in the Normandy Format, including at the Paris summit on Dec. 9, 2019. The Russian side emphasized the need for a fulfilment by Ukraine of its commitments on political aspects of the settlement, and the fact that there is no alternative to forging a direct dialogue between Kyiv, Donetsk and Luhansk," the Kremlin said of the video conference between Macron and Putin on June 26. (Interfax, 06.26.20, TASS, 06.26.20)
- Former Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko has failed to show at the State Bureau of Investigations (DBR) for questioning. The DBR planned to question Poroshenko on June 30 in a case about his alleged illegal appointment of Serhiy Semochko to the post of the deputy chief of the Foreign Intelligence Service. Poroshenko's lawyer, Ihor Holovan, told journalists that his client did not show up because the summons for questioning had been made via the DBR's website, which is illegal since Poroshenko should have been served the subpoena personally. (RFE/RL, 06.30.20)
- In remarkably candid comments, former Georgian president and recently appointed head of Ukraine’s Reform Committee Mikheil Saakashvili said that Russia was “way ahead” of Ukraine in many key reforms. “Russia has gone far ahead of Ukraine in deregulation,” Saakashvili added. “And in the tax system, they are far ahead. Actually, they listen to business much more than we do… [The Russians] are defeating us on the front of reforms.” (bne IntelliNews, 06.29.20)
- The World Bank approved a $350 million to Ukraine June 26 to support the creation of a private farmland market, to help state banks dispose of non-performing loans, break up the monopoly in gas distribution and to strengthen the social safety next for the elderly during the COVID-19 pandemic. (Ukraine Business News, 06.29.20)
- Hundreds of demonstrators have rallied in the Ukrainian capital to protest against the appointment of Serhiy Shkarlet as acting Minister of Education and Science. Demonstrators have accused Shkarlet of plagiarism and expressing outrage over his past association with the Russia-friendly Party of Regions. (RFE/RL, 06.30.20)
- An Iranian military prosecutor says there is no indication that the downing of a Ukrainian passenger jet in Iran in January was due to a cyberattack on the country's defense system. Speaking on June 29 to some of the families of the victims, Gholam Abbas Torki, the military prosecutor for Tehran Province, reiterated that human error was the cause of the accident that killed all 176 people on board the Boeing 737 airliner. (RFE/RL, 06.29.20)
Russia's other post-Soviet neighbors:
- Latvia on June 30 banned a number of Russia's RT television channels from being distributed in the Baltic state because of international sanctions against the head of the Russian state television network. (AFP, 06.30.20)
- Georgian lawmakers have approved a bill on election reforms following a foreign-brokered deal to change a system that opposition parties insisted unfairly favored the ruling party heading into elections this autumn. (RFE/RL, 06.29.20)
- Armenia’s economy will contract by 4 percent in 2020 due to the negative impact of the coronavirus pandemic, but is expected to recover and grow 5.5 percent next year, Martin Galstyan, the country’s central bank head, said. (Reuters, 06.30.20)
- Faced with a spike in coronavirus cases in Central Asia's most populous country, Uzbek officials say they have reimposed measures in some areas, reversing course after slowly rescinding a mid-March lockdown. A government commission on efforts to slow the outbreak said on June 30 that as of July 1, public transportation will be limited and no more than three people will be allowed to gather between 7 a.m. and 11 p.m. on weekends in the regions with registered coronavirus cases. Kazakhstan's government has also presented a plan to reintroduce lockdown measures to stem the spread of the coronavirus after a sharp rise in infections there, with a second lockdown that would start on July 5 and last for at least 14 days. (RFE/RL, 06.30.20, RFE/RL, 07.01.20)
- Human Rights Watch (HRW) has urged Kyrgyz President Sooronbai Jeenbekov "to uphold fundamental rights" and veto laws recently approved by parliament that "violate the country's human rights obligations." HRW said in a statement on June 30 that Kyrgyz lawmakers adopted "a vague and overbroad" bill last week that would allow the authorities, without judicial oversight, to order the removal of information from the Internet that officials consider "false" or "inaccurate." (RFE/RL, 06.30.20)
- The big problem with the announcement in early June that the first freight train had left the Chinese city of Lanzhou bound for the Uzbek capital, Tashkent, is that the railway link in Kyrgyzstan needed for the trip is not yet done. It would seem the China-Kyrgyzstan-Uzbekistan (CKU) railway is just another of those grand projects conceived decades ago that might never be built. (RFE/RL, 06.29.20)
- No significant developments.