Russia in Review, May 5-12, 2023

7 Things to Know

    1. Moscow blaming West at every turn: Vladimir Putin attacked the West on May 9, claiming that Russia’s future depended on the outcome of the war in Ukraine, as he attended a slimmed-down military parade to mark victory over Nazi Germany in WWII, MT reports. "A real war has once again been unleashed against our motherland,” he said, and its goal is to “achieve the disintegration and destruction of our country.” Putin's close ally, the head of Russia’s Security Council, Nikolai Patrushev, accused the "Anglo-Saxon elites" of wanting to seize Eastern Europe ahead of a cataclysmic eruption of the Yellowstone Supervolcano, which he said would wipe out life in North America. Russia’s Foreign Ministry, meanwhile, blamed not only Ukraine but the U.S. for a May 6 car bombing that injured a prominent Russian pro-war writer and killed his driver, per the AP.
    2. Tensions between South Africa and the U.S. over aid to Russia boil over, just as the EU, in a first, is discussing measures that would target third countries helping Moscow evade sanctions. The U.S. ambassador to South Africa said May 11 that South Africa supplied weapons and ammunition to Russia with the help of a Russian cargo ship that surreptitiously docked at the country’s largest naval base in December, the WSJ writes, spurring a diplomatic kerfuffle. An FT investigation has found more than $1 billion worth of "ghost trade" in EU exports, suggesting that former Soviet republics in Central Asia and the Baltics have been a key conduit for getting dual-use technologies to Russia.
    3. Ukrainian advances in Bakhmut: The Ukrainian Army is advancing in localized attacks near the fiercely contested eastern city of Bakhmut, Ukrainian commanders said on May 12, in fighting that has shifted the front line only slightly but is setting off alarms in Russia that Kyiv’s long-anticipated counteroffensive has begun The Russian Defense Ministry acknowledged its forces retreated from positions north of the city of Bakhmut in Ukraine's eastern Donetsk region that for months has been the scene of heavy fighting. Defense Ministry spokesman Igor Konashenkov said at a news briefing on May 12 that Russian forces had "occupied a new frontier" at the Berkhivske reservoir, RFE/RL reported. 
    4. U.S. and its allies claim to dismantle major cyberespionage system used by Russian intelligence for two decades to spy on computers around the world, including government networks, research facilities and journalists, the NYT reports. A May 9 CISA report portrayed the malware system, known as “Snake,” as “the most sophisticated cyberespionage tool” in the FSB's arsenal. Deputy attorney general Lisa Monaco said that “a high-tech operation" by U.S. law enforcement had "turned [the] Russian malware against itself."
    5. Population churn in Ukraine: Russian occupation authorities have ordered tens of thousands of civilians to evacuate from areas in southern Ukraine in the face of a looming Ukrainian offensive, sowing confusion and defiance, the NYT reports. At the same time, more than 5.5 million Ukrainians who left after the war began in February 2022 have gone back home—and not just to large cities like Kyiv or Dnipro, but to small places near the front line, as well.
    6. A Russian theater director and playwright have been arrested in Moscow, the first time since the Soviet era that a high-profile criminal case has been opened over the contents of a theater play, the FT and Meduza report. Director Zhenya Berkovich and playwright Svetlana Petriychuk are detained as suspects in a case of “justifying terrorism.” The charges stem from their award-winning play, based on transcripts of police interviews, about Russian women recruited by the Islamic State.
    7. Russian authorities will launch construction of a village outside Moscow for conservative-minded Americans and Canadians next year, the state-run RIA Novosti news agency reported May 11, per MT. A Moscow migration lawyer claimed that “around 200 families” wish to emigrate to Russia for “ideological reasons.”


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

    Nuclear security and safety:

    • Russian authorities controlling the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant in southern Ukraine are preparing to evacuate about 3,100 staff from areas in and around the facility, the head of Ukraine’s nuclear operator said on May 8. Evacuations in the area were already taking place over the weekend, raising fresh concerns about safety at the plant, Europe's largest. The Russian-appointed governor of the region said on May 7 that about 1,600 civilians had been moved out of Enerhodar, home to the plant and many of its employees, and other communities. (WP, 05.08.23, FT, 05.07.23) See also "Humanitarian impact of the Ukraine conflict" section below.
      • The situation is becoming “unpredictable and potentially dangerous,” the head of the U.N. nuclear watchdog warned over the weekend. “I’m extremely concerned about the very real nuclear safety and security risks facing the plant,” said Rafael Mariano Grossi, director general of the IAEA. (WP, 05.08.23)

    North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs:

    • No significant developments.

    Iran and its nuclear program:

    • No significant developments.

    Leaks of US intelligence assessments:

    • No significant developments.

    Humanitarian impact of the Ukraine conflict:

    • The U.N. has said that, as of May 7, the number of civilians confirmed killed in Ukraine since the start of Russia's full-scale invasion is 8,791, but it believes the actual figures are "considerably higher." More than 75% of the deaths occurred in territory controlled by the Ukrainian government. (RFE/RL, 05.09.23)
    • A French correspondent, video journalist Arman Soldin, was killed by shelling on May 9 while reporting from eastern Ukraine, according to his employer, Agence France-Presse. (FT, 05.09.23)
    • People living in Russian-occupied areas of southern Ukraine described in recent days an atmosphere of confusion, defiance and scarcity, as the occupation authorities ordered tens of thousands of civilians to evacuate in the face of a looming Ukrainian offensive. But it was not immediately clear where they would go, and while the evacuation was described as mandatory, there appeared to be little effort to force people to leave. (NYT, 05.08.23)
    • The Ukrainian government is seeking to extend a wartime deal that allowed the country's grain to get to nations in Africa, the Middle East and Asia where hunger is a growing threat, a top Ukrainian official said on May 11 after the latest talks on prolonging the agreement. If, however, the deal expires May 18, Ukraine has alternative ways of transporting grain and would not see that outcome as an "apocalyptic scenario", the country's agriculture minister said earlier. Ukraine complained May 8 that Russia was holding up shipments of grain from its Black Sea ports. (AP/WP, 05.11.23, Reuters, 05.09.23, NYT, 05.08.23)
      • The head of the U.N.'s World Food Program, Cindy McCain, has warned that it will be difficult to feed the world if Russia pulls out of the Ukraine grain deal. (BBC, 05.11.23)
    • Across Ukraine, the war has forced grain growers into a vicious dilemma. Farmers in areas now free from Russian occupation must decide if it’s worth risking their lives to strip land of explosives before the critical spring planting season. They have soaring production and transportation costs caused by Russia’s blockade of many Black Sea ports, and several neighboring European countries have imposed import restrictions on Ukrainian grain to prevent a glut. (AP, 05.07.23)
      • Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky on May 9 slammed restrictions on grain exports from his war-torn country that were imposed by neighboring EU nations, saying the measures are a boon to Russia. (AFP, 05.09.23)
    • More than 5.5 million Ukrainians who left after the war began in February 2022 have gone back home—and not just to large cities like Kyiv or Dnipro, but to small places near the front line, as well. (NYT, 05.07.23)

    Military aspects of the Ukraine conflict and their impacts:

    • In the past month of fighting Ukrainian forces have reclaimed 48 square miles of territory, according to the Russia-Ukraine War Report Card. (Belfer Russia-Ukraine War Task Force, 05.09.23)
    • Ukrainian forces have launched preparatory strikes on Russian military targets ahead of their highly anticipated counteroffensive, CNN reported on May 12, citing a senior unnamed U.S. military official. The strikes could continue for “many days before the bulk of any planned Ukrainian offensive,” CNN cited the U.S. official as saying. (MT, 05.12.23)
      • President Zelensky said Ukraine was ready to start its long-anticipated counteroffensive but would “lose a lot of people” if it did so with the weapons it has. “I think that’s unacceptable,” he said in an interview that aired on the BBC on May 11. “So we need to wait.” It was not clear if his comments were a feint meant to catch the Russians unprepared. (NYT, 05.11.23)
    • Ukraine still needs more armored vehicles, air defense systems, ammunition and fighter jets to carry out its counteroffensive, the chairwoman of the parliament committee that oversees foreign arms transfers said on May 11. (NYT, 05.11.23)
      • With the exception of fighter jets, Western allies have said they have sent billions of dollars’ worth of those very weapons over the last year. The top NATO military commander, U.S. Gen. Chistopher Cavoli, told Congress in late April, for instance, that over 98% of combat vehicles that were promised to Ukraine “are already there.” A senior Ukrainian official said privately far fewer had been delivered. The Germany-based Kiel Institute, which tracks military aid sent to Ukraine, also suggests a wide gap between the weapons that Western allies have promised to send and what has been delivered. (NYT, 05.11.23)
    • The main targets of a counteroffensive are likely to be in the south. To cut through layered Russian defenses will for sure take the specialist engineering equipment for clearing land mines, bridging trenches and demolishing bunkers that allies have sent. So too the hundreds of trucks and transporters needed to move heavy armor into position faster than Russia can respond. (Bloomberg, 05.11.23)
    • The scramble by Ukraine’s air-defense units to take down enemy drones or missiles has become an almost nightly event since Russia resumed regular air attacks on Kyiv on April 28 after a nearly two-month lull. The units have reportedly intercepted every drone and missile fired at the capital since then. (AP/WP, 05.11.23)
      • Ukraine was hit by a barrage of Russian missiles for the second night in a row between May 8 and 9, just hours before Moscow's planned Victory Day celebration. Ukraine's Air Force said Russia fired 25 missiles, 23 of which it shot down. (MT, 05.09.23)
      • Russia launched around 60 kamikaze drones at Kyiv and other Ukrainian cities on the night of May 7-8, but they were all shot down, Ukrainian officials say. Kyiv Mayor Vitaly Klitschko called it "the most massive attack on our city since the beginning of the war." (Axios, 05.08.23, MT, 05.08.23)
      • Russian forces attacked Kyiv and several other cities across Ukraine with more than 20 missiles and two drones on May 5, killing at least 24 people and demolishing residential and commercial buildings. (FT, 05.09.23)
    • The Ukrainian Army is advancing in localized attacks near the fiercely contested eastern city of Bakhmut, Ukrainian commanders said on May 12, in fighting that has shifted the front line only slightly but is setting off alarms in Russia that Kyiv’s long-anticipated counteroffensive has begun. (NYT, 05.12.23)
      • The Russian Defense Ministry acknowledged its forces retreated from positions north of the city of Bakhmut in Ukraine's eastern Donetsk region that for months has been the scene of heavy fighting. Defense Ministry spokesman Igor Konashenkov said at a news briefing on May 12 that Russian forces had "occupied a new frontier" at the Berkhivske reservoir. (RFE/RL, 05.12.23) A day earlier, on May 11, Russia had denied claims by pro-Moscow bloggers and the head of the Wagner mercenary group that Ukrainian troops had made a breakthrough in the city, which has been an epicenter of heavy fighting for months. Earlier that day Ukraine had reportedly made further gains against Russian forces in Bakhmut. Yevgeny Poddubny, a front-line journalist for Russian state TV, confirmed that Kyiv had launched an offensive in the city to surround Russian forces. (MT, 05.11.23, WSJ, 05.11.23, RFE/RL, 05.11.23)
      • Ukrainian land force commander Col.-Gen. Oleksandr Syrskyi said in a Telegram post on May 11 that Russian units had retreated up to 1.2 miles in areas around Bakhmut. The Russian setback, if confirmed, would undo weeks of incremental gains by the semi-official Wagner units made at a high cost to life. Wagner founder Yevgeny Prigozhin claimed that Ukrainian armed forces plan to move further to the north and south if they take control of Bakhmut. (Bloomberg, 05.11.23, RFE/RL, 05.11.23)
      • Fighting in and around Bakhmut has been divided into two theaters: street combat inside the city and more distanced engagements in fields and villages to the northwest and southwest, where Russian forces are trying to encircle Ukrainian soldiers. (RFE/RL, 05.06.23)
    • Over the last year, mercenary group Wagner and Russia’s Defense Ministry have regularly clashed. Last week, this spat reached new heights when Wagner founder Yevgeny Prigozhin released several videos in which he aggressively accused the Russian defense minister and his chief of the General Staff of failing to provide shells for Wagner's mercenaries. Prigozhin threatened to abandon Bakhmut, where his men have been the key fighting force, then appeared to do an about face. (The Bell, 05.09.23, RM, 05.09.23) See also "Defense and aerospace" in "Russia's domestic politics" section below.
      • Cracks appeared elsewhere, too, as Chechen strongman Ramzan Kadyrov, whose paramilitary forces have fought alongside Wagner in Ukraine, criticized Prigozhin, his longtime ally, in a video broadside. Kadyrov has doled out many medals in recent months to federal officials and other prominent Russian political figures. Analysts say the honors are part of an effort to boost his prestige and influence outside the region—mainly in Moscow. (NYT, 05.12.23, RFE/RL, 05.07.23)
    • Poland has transferred 10 MiG-29 fighter jets to Ukraine, Warsaw announced May 8. (RFE/RL, 05.08.23)
    • Britain is donating long-range Storm Shadow missiles to Ukraine to help it reclaim territory lost to Russia since the start of its invasion, Britain’s defense secretary, Ben Wallace, told Parliament on May 11. (NYT, 05.11.23)
    • An American-made Patriot air-defense missile successfully intercepted one of the most sophisticated conventional weapons in Russia’s arsenal for the first time over Kyiv on May 4, the Ukrainian air force said May 6. The downing of a Russian hypersonic Kinzhal missile by a Patriot missile, confirmed by three senior U.S. officials, appeared to offer the first proof that Russia’s hypersonic missiles—presented as invulnerable by President Vladimir Putin—could be defeated by current Western missile defense systems. (NYT, 05.06.23)

    Punitive measures related to Russia’s war against Ukraine and their impact globally:

    • Environmental safety fears surround the new trade in Russian oil, which — due to international sanctions, in particular the oil price cap — has become less transparent, involves older ships and is more difficult to monitor. (Bloomberg, 05.12.23)
    • More than $1 billion worth of EU exports targeted by sanctions have disappeared in transit to Russia’s economic partners, a flow of “ghost trade” that Western officials believe has helped sustain Vladimir Putin’s wartime economy. Public data analyzed by the FT found that only about half of a $2 billion sample of controlled “dual use” items shipped from the EU actually reached their stated destinations in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Armenia. These goods may have entered Russia directly from the EU — disproportionately from the Baltic states — under the pretense that they were only passing through. (FT, 05.10.23)
    • The EU is moving toward its 11th package of sanctions against Russia to try to sap Putin's military machine and, for the first time, its proposal will include counter-measures against countries helping Moscow dodge Brussels' trade embargo. Three EU diplomats said that Central Asian countries such as Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan are the most likely first targets of the radical new EU proposal, aimed to stop Russia importing the high-tech components required to wage war through its neighbors. The full package could be unveiled as early as May 16. (Politico, 05.08.23)
      • Critics fear that targeting countries through which banned goods transit to Russia could alienate them. “We want to do this in such a way that we don’t push those third countries towards China or Russia,” an EU diplomat said. (FT, 05.08.23)
      • Eight Chinese businesses accused of selling equipment that could be used in weapons have been listed in a new package of sanctions, seen by the FT, to be discussed by EU member states this week. Brussels has until now avoided targeting China, arguing that there had been no evidence it was providing weapons to Moscow. The punitive measures are just proposals, subject to the unanimous approval of the EU’s member states. (FT, 05.09.23) See also "China-Russia: Allied or aligned?" section below.
    • The EU has frozen €24.1 billion in Russian private assets since the invasion of Ukraine over 14 months ago, European Commission spokesman Christian Wigand told journalists, adding that the EU is “working on making Russia pay for the crimes committed against Ukraine.” The EU has sanctioned almost 1,500 individuals, restricted exports on hundreds of goods and technologies, and targeted many of Moscow’s key revenue sources but has been struggling to find and freeze the assets of sanctioned Russian billionaires, he said. (Bloomberg, 05.11.23)
    • Russian central bank assets worth 7.4 billion Swiss francs ($8.3 billion) are held across Switzerland, the government said May 10 following new reporting obligations introduced as part of the latest European Union sanctions package. Those funds have been immobilized and shouldn’t be confused with the 7.5 billion francs' worth of assets that have been frozen as they belonged to sanctioned Russians or Russian companies. (Bloomberg, 05.10.23)
    • The Justice Department on May 10 announced that it had transferred millions of dollars in assets seized from Russian oligarch Konstantin Malofeyev for use in rebuilding Ukraine, the first such use of forfeited funds arising from sanctions violations. The funds have been sent to the State Department to be spent on remediating damage from Moscow’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine. (NYT, 05.11.23)
    • The U.S. ambassador to South Africa said May 11 that South Africa supplied weapons and ammunition to Russia with the help of a Russian cargo ship that surreptitiously docked at the country’s largest naval base in December. President Cyril Ramaphosa said that the matter “is being looked into,” but that no evidence had yet been provided by Washington. The incident follows reports that last week South African officials allowed a cargo plane targeted by U.S. sanctions for supporting Russia’s military efforts to land at an air force base near the capital. The prospect of Western sanctions against South African officials and entities risks alienating Africa’s most developed economy and one of its most established democracies. (WSJ, 05.11.23, NYT, 05.11.23, Reuters, 05.11.23, RM, 05.11.23)
      • South Africa’s government summoned U.S. Amb. Reuben Brigety after his public accusation to issue a diplomatic demarche on May 12. The country's foreign minister intends to raise the matter with her American counterpart later in the day. (Bloomberg, 05.12.23)
      • o A South African minister responsible for arms control and a Foreign Ministry spokesman said May 12 that the country had not approved any arms shipment to Russia in December. "We didn't approve any arms to Russia, … it wasn't sanctioned or approved by us," Communications Minister Mondli Gungubele, who chaired the National Conventional Arms Control Committee (NCACC) when the alleged arms shipment to Russia took place, told 702 radio. (Reuters, 05.12.23)
      • The South African rand slumped to its weakest level on record against the dollar and government bond yields soared amid investor concern a diplomatic row between Pretoria and the U.S. may put trade worth billions of dollars to South Africa at risk. (Bloomberg, 05.12.23)
    • Russia’s increased efforts to circumvent sanctions imposed on its economy are a sign that the international measures are having an effect, Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen said on May 11. She was attending a G7 meeting where the wealthy nations sought to redouble their efforts to prevent Russia from evading sanctions. (NYT, 05.11.23)
    • Russia is still importing Western luxury goods, enabled by a global network of middlemen. In Moscow, the latest iPhones are available for same-day delivery for less than the retail price in Europe. Department stores still stock Gucci, Prada and Burberry. Car-sales sites list new Land Rovers, Audis and BMWs. (NYT, 05.11.23)
    • British consumer goods giant Unilever has doubled profits and increased ad spending in Russia despite its pledge to stop profiting from the market after Moscow invaded Ukraine last year, investigative media reported on May 12. (MT, 05.12.23)
    • One luxury good has largely escaped the glare of international sanctions against Russia: diamonds. Russia is home to the world's largest diamond reserves; exports totaled $4.5 billion in 2021—one of Russia’s top 10 non-energy exports by value. (Axios, 05.08.23)
      • Belgium, a major diamond trading hub, opposed including Russian-origin diamonds in previous rounds of sanctions, but now says it could support broader international action. But sanctioning polished diamonds "is not something that can be done quickly," a senior State Department official acknowledged, because they are difficult to trace back to their country of origin. (Axios, 05.08.23)
    • The ban on Russian crude oil is costing Poland’s state-controlled oil company millions of dollars a day as it struggles to find alternative supplies for its Czech refinery. “I wouldn’t call it [a] loss: this is a matter of not supporting Russia,” Daniel Obajtek, chief executive of PKN Orlen, said. “This is a market cost that applies to every company that does not import oil from Russia.” (FT, 05.07.23)
    • The president of the Russian Olympic Committee indicated on May 11 that the country could boycott qualifying competitions in fencing for next year’s Paris Games after some athletes, including his own daughter, were barred from competing. The IOC recommends letting competitors from Russia and Belarus compete as neutral athletes without national symbols after the invasion of Ukraine but still excluding those employed by the military or security services or those who have publicly backed the war. (AP/WP, 05.11.23)

    Ukraine-related negotiations:

    • A Chinese government envoy will visit Ukraine and Russia next week in an attempt to help negotiate an end to the war, a Chinese government spokesman said on May 12. (NYT, 05.12.23)
    • U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said peace negotiations to end the conflict in Ukraine were "not possible at this moment," in an interview published by Spanish daily El Pais on May 9. (AFP/MT, 05.09.23)
    • Pope Francis could meet Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky at the Vatican this weekend, a Vatican official said on May 11. Francis has repeatedly called for an end to Russia’s war in Ukraine and expressed solidarity with the “martyred” Ukrainian people. Recently he revealed a secret peace “mission” was underway but provided no details. (AP, 05.11.23)

    Great Power rivalry/new Cold War/NATO-Russia relations:

    • The U.S. is considering easing sanctions against Moscow in order to secure the release of jailed Americans Evan Gershkovich and Paul Whelan  from Russian prison, CNN reported on May 11, citing unnamed senior White House officials. The U.S. has classified Gershkovich, a Wall Street Journal reporter, and Whelan, a former U.S. Marine, as “wrongfully detained.” (MT, 05.12.23)
      • About 70 members of Congress wrote a letter to Gershkovich, condemning the time “stolen” from his life as he sits in a Russian prison, and vowed to continue advocating for his release. The Republican-led House of Representatives is considering a resolution calling on Russia to free him. (WSJ, 05.11.23, WSJ, 05.10.23)
    • U.S. national security adviser Jake Sullivan and China’s top diplomat Wang Yi held talks in Vienna in an attempt to stabilize relations between the countries. The White House said the officials held “candid, substantive and constructive” discussions May 10-11 on issues that included global security matters and Russia’s war against Ukraine. Wang and Sullivan met for more than eight hours over the two days, with Sullivan raising U.S. concerns about China potentially supplying lethal aid to Russia. (FT, 05.11.23)
    • A Russian defeat in Ukraine will not derail China’s rise, while relations between Beijing and the EU will be “critically affected” if Xi Jinping does not push Vladimir Putin to withdraw his forces, European ministers have been told. The message comes in a paper drawn up by the EU foreign policy chief, Josep Borrell, who is meeting the EU’s 27 foreign ministers on May 12 in Stockholm to discuss how the bloc should “recalibrate” its policy towards Beijing. (Guardian, 05.12.23)
    • Vladimir Putin gave a combative speech on May 9, attacking the West and claiming that Russia’s future depended on the outcome of the war in Ukraine as he attended a slimmed-down military parade on Red Square to mark Victory Day. “Civilization again finds itself at a decisive, critical moment,” Putin said, implicitly comparing the conflict in Ukraine with WWII. "A real war has once again been unleashed against our motherland” and its goal, he continued, was to “achieve the disintegration and destruction of our country.” Putin praised "everyone fighting on the frontline,” adding: “There is nothing more important now than your military work. Today, the security of our country depends on you. The future of our statehood and our people depends on you.” (MT, 05.09.23, AP/WP, 05.09.23, FT, 05.09.23)
      • With Russia's consul general in the lead, a May 9 parade took place in the small Arctic town of Barentsburg, inhabited mainly by Russian and Ukrainian nationals, in Norway’s Svalbard archipelago. It included a helicopter and over 50 vehicles, including snowmobiles driven by men in khaki suits. (Barents Observer, 05.09.23)
      • A Berlin court on May 8 upheld a police ban on Russian and Soviet flags and other symbols at this week’s Victory Day celebrations, which commemorate the end of World War II in Europe. Major monuments have recently become staging points for pro-Russian activists. (NYT, 05.08.23)
    • As Europeans commemorated the 78th anniversary of the Allied triumph over Nazi Germany, President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine used the occasion to evoke his nation’s struggle against the Russian invasion, pledging in a speech on May 8 to achieve “a new victory” in Europe. A day later Zelensky said he and visiting European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen discussed Ukraine's progress toward integration into the EU, European ammunition deliveries for the Ukrainian military and fresh Russia sanctions. (NYT, 05.08.23, RFE/RL, 05.09.23)
      • Von der Leyen, who arrived in Kyiv by train, described Ukraine as “the beating heart of today’s European values,” adding that, “in Russia, Putin and his regime have destroyed these values, and now they are attempting to destroy them here in Ukraine” but have " dramatically failed." (FT, 05.09.23)
      • German Chancellor Olaf Scholz urged fellow Europeans not to allow themselves to be “intimidated” by Putin’s parade which he described as a “power play.” “Let’s remain steadfast in our support for Ukraine — for as long as it takes,” Scholz said. (FT, 05.09.23)
      • French President Emmanuel Macron also signaled support for Kyiv, writing on Twitter that “today, with our help, Ukraine continues to resist and, on the strength of its own courage, will emerge victorious.” (FT, 05.09.23)
    • Russia’s Foreign Ministry blamed not only Ukraine but the U.S. for a May 6 car bombing that injured prominent Russian pro-war writer Zakhar Prilepin and killed his driver: “Responsibility for this and other terrorist acts lies not only with the Ukrainian authorities, but with their Western patrons, first and foremost the United States, who since the coup d’etat of February 2014 have painstakingly nurtured the anti-Russian neo-Nazi project in Ukraine,” the ministry said, referring to the 2014 uprising in Kyiv that forced a Russia-friendly president to flee. (AP, 05.06.23, BBC, 05.07.23) See also "Security, law-enforcement and justice" subsection in "Russian domestic politics" below.
    • The head of Russia’s Security Council, Nikolai Patrushev, accused the "Anglo-Saxon elites" in an interview of wanting to seize Eastern Europe ahead of a cataclysmic eruption of the Yellowstone Supervolcano, which he said would wipe out life in North America. (NYT, 05.05.23, RM, 05.05.23) 

    China-Russia: Allied or aligned?

    • China’s foreign minister has condemned EU proposals to impose sanctions on Chinese companies for supporting Russia’s war machine. Qin Gang, speaking in Berlin, vowed to react “strictly and firmly” to defend China’s businesses. (FT, 05.09.23) See also "Punitive measures" section above.

    Missile defense:

    • See "Military aspects of the Ukraine conflict" section above.

    Nuclear arms:

    • No significant developments.


    • No significant developments.

    Conflict in Syria:

    • Against U.S. opposition, foreign ministers from Arab League member states agreed May 7 to readmit Syria to the organization after a nearly 12-year suspension, according to a joint statement. It's a major win for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. U.S. Secretary of State Tony Blinken stressed on May 4 that the U.S. objects to the normalization of the Assad regime. (Axios, 05.07.23)

    Cyber security/AI:

    • The U.S. and its allies have dismantled a major cyberespionage system that Russia’s intelligence service had used for years to spy on computers around the world, the Justice Department announced May 9. In a separate report, CISA portrayed the system, known as the “Snake” malware network, as “the most sophisticated cyberespionage tool” in the Federal Security Service’s, or FSB's, arsenal, which it has used to surveil sensitive targets, including government networks, research facilities and journalists. (NYT, 05.09.23)
      • “Through a high-tech operation that turned Russian malware against itself, U.S. law enforcement has neutralized one of Russia’s most sophisticated cyberespionage tools, used for two decades to advance Russia’s authoritarian objectives,” Lisa O. Monaco, the deputy attorney general, said in a statement. (NYT, 05.09.23)
    • Army Gen. Paul Nakasone, director of the National Security Agency, has told colleagues he expects to step down from the helm of the nation’s electronic spy agency and military’s Cyber Command in the coming months, according to people familiar with the matter. He has been deeply involved in U.S. support for Ukraine as well as in efforts to curtail ransomware and protect elections from Russia and other foreign adversaries. (WSJ, 05.11.23)

    Energy exports from CIS:

    • The Council of Ministers of Bosnia-Herzegovina on May 11 approved negotiations on building two new pipelines to supply gas from Russia and Azerbaijan via Serbia and Croatia. (RFE/RL, 05.11.23)
    • Russia's energy producers may struggle to achieve long-term growth as the Kremlin tries to squeeze more tax revenue from the sector. That's according to an analysis of the tax changes seen by the FT. The “changes will … undercut the future production capacity of the Russian oil and gas industry by taking away revenues that could otherwise be used to invest in equipment, exploration and existing fields,” an official from the G7-led coalition that produced the analysis told the FT. (Markets Insider, 05.08.23, FT, 05.08.23)
    • Nuclear power is back in vogue, with the U.S. and Europe building new reactors. The trouble is the West doesn't have enough nuclear fuel and the biggest source of the ingredients to make it is Russia and its state monopoly of suppliers, Rosatom, which is implicated in supporting the war in Ukraine. Currently, nuclear fuel is one of the few Russian energy sources not banned by the West. (WSJ, 05.11.23)
    • See also "Punitive measures related to Russia’s war against Ukraine" above.

    Climate change:

    • Norway on May 11 took over the Arctic Council’s rotating chairmanship from Russia amid questions about what role the eight-country intergovernmental body can play in protecting the polar region after the invasion of Ukraine prompted Western countries to suspend cooperation with Moscow. As a result, research involving Russia on issues ranging from climate change to polar bears has been put on hold, and scientists have lost access to important facilities in the Russian Arctic. (AP/WP, 05.11.23)
    • See also "Punitive measures related to Russia’s war against Ukraine" above.

    U.S.-Russian economic ties:

    • No significant developments.

    U.S.-Russian relations in general:

    • Donald Trump’s refusal to commit to aiding Ukraine portends a stark choice for U.S. voters if the war is still raging in November 2024: The wide-ranging support for Kyiv under President Biden, or indifference to the winner of a conflict that has cost the U.S. and its allies tens of billions of dollars. Trump said on May 10 that his priority would be to put a swift end to the war: “Russians and Ukrainians, I want them to stop dying,” he said. “And I’ll have that done in 24 hours.” (WSJ, 05.11.23)
    • Russian authorities will launch construction of a village outside Moscow for conservative-minded Americans and Canadians next year, the state-run RIA Novosti news agency reported on May 11. Timur Beslangurov, a migration lawyer at Moscow’s VISTA Foreign Business Support, claimed that “around 200 families” wish to emigrate to Russia for “ideological reasons.” (MT, 05.11.23)


    II. Russia’s domestic policies

    Domestic politics, economy and energy:

    • Two Russian theater workers—a director and playwright—have been arrested in Moscow, the first time since the Soviet era that a high-profile criminal case has been opened over the contents of a theater play. Director Zhenya Berkovich and playwright Svetlana Petriychuk were detained May 4 and held as suspects in a case of “justifying terrorism.” The charges stem from “Finist the Bright Falcon,” their award-winning play about Russian women recruited by the Islamic State. At Berkovich's court hearing, state-appointed experts also decried “radical feminism” in the text. (FT, 05.05.23, Meduza, 05.06.23)
    • In other news of Russia's crackdown on dissent:
      • Jailed Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny said on May 11 that he has been returned to solitary confinement for the 15th time since he was imprisoned in 2021. The UN's special rapporteur on torture called on Russia on May 10 to provide Navalny with "urgent and comprehensive" medical care following reports that his health is deteriorating. (MT, 05.11.23, RFE/RL, 05.10.23)
      • A 29-year-old history teacher in Russia's Komi Republic in the Urals has been sentenced to 5 1/2 years in prison for his online posts supporting Ukraine in its fight against Russia's unprovoked invasion. (RFE/RL, 05.11.23)
      • A Moscow court on May 10 sentenced poet Nikolai Daineko to four years in prison for publicly reciting verses condemning Russia's invasion of Ukraine. (RFE/RL, 05.10.23)
      • A court gave a two-year suspended sentence on May 11 to a St. Petersburg woman who left a note on the grave of Putin’s parents that said they had “raised a freak and a killer.” The court found Irina Tsybaneva, 60, guilty of desecrating burial places motivated by political hatred. (AP/WP, 05.11.23)
    • The death toll from wildfires in Russia’s Ural Mountains rose to 21 on May 9, TASS reported, citing local emergency service agencies. Wildfires have raged in the Kurgan region of the Urals and in Siberia all week. (AP/WP, 05.09.23)
    • Russia’s deficit has surpassed the government’s entire 2023 target in the first four months of the year as wartime spending and falling energy revenues continued to cut into state coffers. The federal budget deficit rose to 3.42 trillion rubles ($45 billion) in January-April 2023, according to Finance Ministry figures published on May 10. (MT, 05.11.23)
    • Yandex, one of Russia’s biggest IT companies, is going through a “divorce” from its founder, Arkady Volozh, and is about to decide on new owners for its domestic arm. According to reporting by The Bell and Meduza, the leading candidates are Russian billionaires: co-founder of oil giant Lukoil Vagit Alekperov, owner of steel and mining company Severstal Alexei Mordashov and Norilsk Nickel owner Vladimir Potanin. (The Bell, 05.09.23)
    • A Russian court fined Google for refusing to take down material it described as promoting same-sex relationships and discrediting the country’s armed forces, a fresh escalation in a growing confrontation with the search giant. (WSJ, 05.11.23)

    Defense and aerospace:

    • Putin has signed a decree calling up military reservists for training in 2023, according to an official document published on May 10. Such trainings are a planned annual event, but legal experts say those who turn up could face pressure to sign contracts to be sent to fight in Ukraine. (Reuters, 05.10.23, MT, 05.11.23)
    • Wagner founder Yevgeny Prigozhin said on May 9 that Russia’s Defense Ministry had threatened to charge his mercenary outfit with treason if they withdrew from Bakhmut. He also claimed that Wagner fighters had yet to receive ammunition promised them by the Russian military after he threatened last week to withdraw his men from the city because of inadequate supplies. (MT, 05.09.23, BBC, 05.07.23)
      • Prigozhin said May 7 that Moscow had agreed to his demands for more ammunition and his forces had been given permission to "act in Bakhmut as we see fit”—appearing to suggest they would remain. Prigozhin's apparent U-turn from the previous week is not a huge surprise. He is a publicity seeker who has not followed through on previous threats. (BBC, 05.07.23)
      • In the May 9 video, Prigozhin also claimed that Russian army units had fled their positions in the city because of “stupid” and “criminal” orders handed down by senior military commanders. Two days earlier he had said that Gen. Sergei Surovikin—who commanded Russia's forces in Ukraine between October and January—had been appointed to liaise between Russia's regular military and Wagner. "This is the only man with the star of an army general who knows how to fight," Prigozhin said. "No other army general is reasonable." (MT, 05.09.23, BBC, 05.07.23)
    • Russian prisoners are increasingly denied parole amid efforts by the Wagner mercenary group and later the Defense Ministry to recruit convicts for the war in Ukraine, the Nezavisimaya Gazeta newspaper reported on May 11. Only 39% of prisoners who applied for conditional early release were granted it in 2022, one of the lowest rates in two decades of record-keeping. (MT, 05.11.23)
    • See also section on "Military aspects of the Ukraine conflict and their impacts" above.

    Security, law-enforcement and justice:

    • The Kommersant newspaper reported that Vladimir Putin told journalists May 8 that at least one of the drones destroyed over his Kremlin residence the previous week was DIY and carried only 400 grams of TNT. "He seemed not to consider the incident as significant as the rest of the world did," the author wrote. (RM, 05.09.23)
      • Police in Russia’s second-largest city, St. Petersburg, have formed a special unit for shooting down drones, the city's Interior Ministry said on May 12, as concerns have risen over drone attacks on Russian territory amid its war on Ukraine. (MT, 05.12.23)
    • The war in Ukraine prompted officials across Russia to scale back annual celebrations of Victory Day, with more than 20 cities forgoing military parades and organizers calling off a popular nationwide march to honor veterans. Security concerns were most often cited for the rash of cancellations. Putin on May 5 discussed preparations for Victory Day with Russia’s Security Council. (NYT, 05.08.23, MT, 05.08.23)
      • Some 8,000 troops took part in the parade in Moscow’s Red Square on May 9 — the lowest number since 2008. There was no fly-over of military jets, and the event lasted less than the usual hour. Kommersant correspondent Andrei Kolesnikov wrote that security was "unprecedented," with four cordons to go through, and that he saw security officials confiscate an e-cigarette and even a box of Tic Tacs from fellow journalists. (AP/WP, 05.09.23, RM, 05.09.23)
    • Russian investigators said May 6 that the suspect in the car bombing that injured Russian pro-war writer Zakhar Prilepin has admitted acting at the behest of Ukraine’s special services and was a Ukraine native. Alexander Permyakov faces up to 20 years in prison on charges of terrorism and 15 years for arms smuggling. (AP, 05.06.23, BBC, 05.07.23, MT, 05.08.23)
      • Prilepin was out of a medically induced coma and "feeling well," his spokesperson said May 7. A vehement supporter of Russia's campaign in Ukraine, Prilepin was hurt while driving in Russia's Nizhny Novgorod region. His driver died. (BBC, 05.07.23) See also "new Cold War" section above.

    III. Russia’s relations with other countries

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

    • The BRICS group of nations will discuss the feasibility of introducing a common currency, South Africa's foreign minister said May 9, as emerging markets weigh whether they can find alternatives to the U.S. dollar as the global trading currency. One option is for the bloc — which comprises Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa — to adopt its own unit. The issue is likely be on the agenda of a meeting of the nations’ heads of state in Johannesburg on Aug. 22. (Bloomberg, 05.10.23)
    • India and Russia have suspended efforts to settle bilateral trade in rupees, after months of negotiations failed to convince Moscow to keep rupees in its coffers, two Indian government officials and a source with direct knowledge of the matter said. (Reuters, 05.04.23)
    • The Kremlin on May 12 denied it was meddling in Turkey's presidential election campaign, after Turkish leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan's main rival, opposition candidate Kemal Kilicdaroglu, accused Moscow of spreading "deep fakes" targeting him. (AFP/MT, 05.12.23)
    • Hungary's Prime Minister Viktor Orban on May 12 questioned whether there was a need for the EU at all, hitting out at the bloc for an economic slowdown affecting most of the globe and for its response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Orban has argued that the EU should lift sanctions imposed on Russia, measures he has blamed for a deepening a recession in Hungary. (Bloomberg, 05.12.23)
    • Poland is reverting to using its historical name for Kaliningrad, the Russian city and administrative region that sits on its border. From now on, it will be designated on Polish maps as Krolewiec. The Kremlin has reacted angrily: Spokesperson Dmitry Peskov called it a “process bordering on insanity,” going beyond Russophobia. (AP/WP, 05.10.23)
      • Russia's ambassador to Poland was blocked by activists from laying flowers at a Soviet memorial in Warsaw on May 9, the day Russia celebrates victory in World War II. Several dozen activists also unveiled an art installation there, commemorating Ukrainians killed during the Russian invasion. (AFP/MT, 05.09.23)
    • Germany’s foreign minister on May 10 urged Beijing to call out Russia as the aggressor in the war in Ukraine. (AP/WP, 05.10.23)
    • New executives were appointed to top roles in Italy’s leading energy companies on May 10, despite fierce opposition from some foreign investors. The most controversial appointment is that of Paolo Scaroni as chairman of Enel, the state-controlled utility company; he is an ally of former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi and has a history of close business dealings with Russia. (WSJ, 05.10.23)


    • Ukraine’s Security Service reports that it has charged, in absentia, all members of Russia’s Federation Council who supported the “unification” with Russia of Ukraine’s occupied regions with encroaching on Ukrainian territory and waging an aggressive war. The Security Service also noted that the prosecutor general’s office has collected evidence on about 170 Russian senators who contributed to the occupation. (Meduza, 05.06.23)
    • In one example of how Putin’s brutal invasion has backfired, some Ukrainians are now trying to erase Russia — and the Russian language — from their culture and landscape. Russian-language books have been pulped. Russocentric museums have been pressured to shutter. Streets named after Russian sites, poets and Soviet army generals are marked for a change. Zelensky last month signed two laws barring the use of Russian place names and requiring Ukrainian citizens to know the Ukrainian language. (WP, 05.11.23)
      • The boldest step in official effort to rid the country of Russian influences has been the crackdown on the Russian Orthodox Church. For years, Metropolitan Pavlo Lebid was one of the highest-ranking officials in its Ukrainian branch. Now, he is wearing an ankle bracelet, charged with supporting the Russian invasion and confined to house arrest. Ukrainian officials are trying to wrest control from him of the Kyiv Monastery of the Caves, Ukraine’s holiest site, known as the Lavra. (WSJ, 05.10.23)
    • 45 Azovstal defenders return to Ukraine, and three fighter pilots to Russia, in a prisoner exchange over the weekend. (Meduza, 05.06.23)

    Russia's other post-Soviet neighbors:

    • Leaders of Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Belarus, Turkmenistan, and Armenia attended Russia’s annual Victory Day parade in Moscow on May 9, a sign of how much sway the Kremlin still has in Central Asia and other regions near Russia. Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko arrived unannounced in Moscow on the evening of May 8 for what his press service said would be a "working visit." Kyrgyzstan’s President Sadyr Japarov was the only foreign leader to have given advance confirmation of his participation in the flagship parade. (RFE/RL, 05.09.23, MT, 05.08.23)
      • Russia will "deepen military and technical cooperation" with Kyrgyzstan and "develop" its military installations there, the Kremlin said May 8, following talks between the two countries' leaders in Moscow. (AFP/MT, 05.08.23)
    • Armenia and Azerbaijan on May 11 blamed each other for an exchange of fire along their restive border, which killed one person and wounded four days ahead of EU-hosted peace talks. (AFP/MT, 05.11.23)
      • European Council president Charles Michel will host a May 14 meeting in Brussels between Azerbaijan’s president Ilham Aliyev and Armenia’s prime minister Nikol Pashinyan, three officials with knowledge of the preparations told the FT. It will be the first time the two leaders have met in person since February and comes after the two countries’ foreign ministers held extensive discussions in Washington last week. (FT, 05.08.23)
    • Putin on May 10 abolished visas for Georgian nationals and lifted a 2019 ban on direct flights to the South Caucasus nation, a move that comes amid rocky relations between the two countries and that was quickly denounced by Georgia’s president as a “provocation” designed to frustrate Georgia’s EU integration ambitions. The moves are widely seen as a Kremlin reward for the Georgian government’s restrained approach on the war in Ukraine, while also serving as tacit recognition that Georgia is an important node of sanctions-busting trade for Russia.  (AP/WP, 05.10.23, Eurasianet, 05.10.23)
    • The EU is planning an undersea internet cable to improve connectivity to Georgia and reduce dependence on lines running through Russia, amid growing concerns about vulnerabilities to infrastructure transmitting global data. The €45 million cable will link EU member states to the Caucasus via international waters in the Black Sea, stretching a span of 1,100 kilometers. (FT, 05.12.23)
    • Georgia’s ruling political party on May 11 made another small move in a slow-motion geopolitical about-face, announcing that it was quitting the Party of European Socialists (PES), a European Union umbrella group of socialist and social-democratic forces. (Eurasianet, 05.11.23)
    • Uzbekistan is to hold snap presidential elections on July 9, President Shavkat Mirziyoyev said May 8, citing the need to pursue wide-ranging reforms as a reason for bringing the vote forward by more than three years. (Eurasianet, 05.08.23)
    • A court in Minsk on May 11 sentenced Paval Belavus, noted art manager and founder of a popular shop selling Belarusian national symbols, to 13 years in prison on high treason and other charges. (RFE/RL, 05.11.23)
    • Belarusian lawyer Anastasia Lazarenka, who consulted with activists jailed for taking part in mass protests challenging the official results of an August 2020 presidential election, has been sentenced to six years in prison. (RFE/RL, 05.11.23)