Russia in Review, Sept. 13-20, 2019

This Week’s Highlights:

  • Russia is set to be a major winner after an attack on Saudi Arabian oil facilities slashed production and ramped up tensions in the Middle East, according to The Moscow Times; meanwhile, the head of the International Energy Agency predicts the U.S. will overtake Saudi Arabia and Russia as the world's largest oil exporter in the next few years amid an "unprecedented" energy boom, according to RFE/RL.
  • After talks with leaders of Turkey and Iran, Russian President Vladimir Putin suggested that Saudi Arabia buy the Russian-made S-300 or S-400 missile defense system to protect its infrastructure, as Iran and Turkey had done, Reuters reports.  
  • Russia on Sept. 20 accused the U.S. of brazenly threatening it after a senior U.S. general said Washington had drawn up a plan in case it needed to destroy air defenses in Russia's Kaliningrad exclave in Europe, according to Reuters.
  • The whistleblower complaint involving communications with a foreign leader and an alarming “promise” U.S. President Donald Trump made centers on Ukraine, according to two people familiar with the matter, The Washington Post reports.
  • The chairman of the Democratic National Committee is warning that the party cannot partner effectively with the Trump administration to fend off foreign cyberattacks because of Trump’s professed doubts about Russian interference in the 2016 election, according to The Washington Post.
  • Protests continue in Russia. About 1,000 people participated in a sanctioned demonstration against alleged elections violations in St. Petersburg, holding placards that read “That’s enough lying to us,” the AP reports. In the Siberian city of Ulan-Ude, many held banners reading “Russia Will Be Free” and “We Won’t Recognize Election Results,” according to RFE/RL. A working group set up by Mikhail Khodorkovsky has written an open letter signed by 77 public figures around the world condemning “the political repression and lawlessness taking place today in Russia,” according to The Moscow Times.
  • Anti-migrant attitudes have risen for a second consecutive year in Russia, which experts link to the country’s economic woes. Seventy-two percent of respondents to a recent Levada Center poll said Russia should limit migration, The Moscow Times reports.

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

Nuclear security and safety:

  • No significant developments.

North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs:

  • Russian border guards have detained at least 160 North Korean nationals who they say were illegally fishing in Russian waters. Russian authorities seized two fishing vessels and 11 motorboats. Russia's FSB said on Sept. 20 that one North Korean poacher has died. (RFE/RL, 09.18.19, Reuters, 09.20.19)
  • Russia’s Foreign Ministry said on Sept. 17 it will summon North Korea’s top diplomatic representative in Moscow following the detention of the North Korean vessels. (Reuters, 09.17.19)

Iran’s nuclear program and related issues:

  • Saudi Arabia has displayed drone and missile debris that it said showed a weekend attack targeting the kingdom's crucial oil industry was "unquestionably sponsored by Iran." Saudi Defense Ministry spokesman Col. Turki al-Malki said Sept. 18 that 18 drones and seven cruise missiles struck from a direction that ruled out Yemen as a source. A senior U.S. official said earlier that evidence from the attack indicated Iran was behind it, instead of the Yemeni Houthi group that had claimed responsibility. U.S. President Donald Trump said on Sept. 15 the U.S. was "locked and loaded" for a potential response to the attack. Iran rejected the U.S. accusations, and warned that U.S. land and naval forces in the region were within range of its missiles. (RFE/RL, 09.18.19, RFE/RL, 09.15.19)
    • Iran’s top diplomat said a military strike by the U.S. or Saudi Arabia against his country would result in “an all-out war.” (Wall Street Journal, 09.19.19)
    • Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on Sept. 19 urged all countries in the Gulf to sit down for talks to defuse tensions, Interfax reported. Lavrov called for measures to be put in place to stop a similar situation happening in the region again and said that groundless accusations against Iran over the attacks were inflaming tensions. (Reuters, 09.19.19)
    • Russia is ready to help Saudi Arabia following attacks on the Saudi oil industry if needed, Russian President Vladimir Putin said after talks with leaders of Turkey and Iran. Putin suggested that Saudi Arabia buy the Russian-made S-300 or S-400 missile defense system, as Iran and Turkey had done. (Reuters, 09.16.19, The Washington Post, 09.17.19)
    • Russian President Vladimir Putin by phone discussed the attacks with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman on Sept. 18, the Kremlin said. Putin and the crown prince expressed their commitment to bilateral cooperation on stabilizing global oil prices and the Russian leader called for a thorough and impartial investigation into the attacks in Saudi Arabia. (Reuters, 09.18.19)
    • U.S. President Donald Trump said on Sept. 18 that he ordered Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin to substantially raise sanctions on Iran, the first U.S. policy response to last week’s attack on critical Saudi Arabian oil facilities. Russia called the sanctions “destructive” and added that they “will not solve anything.” (Wall Street Journal, 09.18.19, CNBC, 09.18.19)

New Cold War/saber rattling:

  • Russia on Sept. 20 accused the U.S. of brazenly threatening it after a senior U.S. general said Washington had drawn up a plan in case it needed to destroy air defenses in Russia's Kaliningrad exclave in Europe. (Reuters, 09.20.19)
  • More than 90 million people would be killed or injured in a nuclear war between the U.S. and Russia if a conventional conflict went too far, according to a new simulation created by researchers at Princeton’s Science and Global Security program. Such a scenario has become “dramatically” more plausible in the last two years because the two countries have dropped support for arms-control measures, according to the researchers. (Independent, 09.18.19)

Military issues, including NATO-Russia relations:

  • "Russia is a competitor, and the NATO advantage over a resurgent Russia has eroded," U.S. Gen. Joseph Dunford, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said. (RFE/RL, 09.18.19)
  • Turkey's defense ministry says Russia has completed delivery of components for a second battery of the S-400 surface-to-air missile defense system to an airbase in the Turkish capital, and it plans to activate the system in April 2020. (AP, 09.15.19)

Missile defense:

  • No significant developments.

Nuclear arms control:

  • No significant developments.


  • Russian police, together with the Federal Security Service, have uncovered Islamic State cells in 17 regions across Russia in 2019, including in Moscow. (The Moscow Times, 09.18.19)

Conflict in Syria:

  • Rival U.N. humanitarian resolutions on Syria calling for a cease-fire in the country’s last rebel stronghold were defeated in the Security Council Sept. 19. The Security Council was set to decide between a resolution submitted by Kuwait, Germany and Belgium and a rival draft put forward by Russia and China. (AP, 09.19.19, RFE/RL, 09.19.19)
  • Russian President Vladimir Putin said on Sept. 16 that all foreign troops should be pulled out from Syria eventually, after peace is reached in the country and that the deployment of U.S. troops in Syria was illegal. (Reuters, 09.16.19)
  • The leaders of Turkey, Russia and Iran meeting in Ankara on Sept. 16 agreed to try to ease tensions in northwest Syria's Idlib region, but disagreements between the countries appeared to linger, especially over the threat from Islamic State. The three countries’ leaders announced Sept. 16 that an agreement has been reached on the composition of a committee tasked with rewriting Syria’s constitution. (Reuters, 09.17.19, AP, 09.16.19)

Cyber security:

  • No significant developments.

Elections interference:

  • Tom Perez, the chairman of the Democratic National Committee, is warning in newly blunt terms that the party cannot partner effectively with the Trump administration to fend off foreign cyberattacks because of the president’s professed doubts about Russian interference in the 2016 election. (The Washington Post, 09.18.19)

Energy exports:

  • Russia is set to be a major winner after an attack on Saudi Arabian oil facilities slashed production and ramped up tensions in the Middle East, analysts predict. In a frantic day for the world’s markets, oil prices climbed by almost 15 percent Sept. 16 following the drone attacks on Abqaiq, Saudi Arabia’s largest oil refinery, which pumps around 5 percent of the world’s oil supply. (The Moscow Times, 09.17.19)
    • The head of Russia’s Direct Investment Fund on Sept. 18 praised Saudi Aramco’s quick recovery of oil production after attacks on its facilities, and said Russian companies had offered to help fix the damage. (Reuters, 09.18.19)
    • OPEC and Russia are so far holding off pumping more oil to fill potential gaps in global supplies after the attack led to a major crude disruption. (Wall Street Journal, 09.16.19)
    • There is enough oil in global stockpiles to replace barrels Saudi Arabia has temporarily lost due to attacks on its oil facilities, Russia's Energy Minister Alexander Novak said. (The Moscow Times, 09.16.19)
    • Rosneft, Russia’s top oil producer, is considering increasing crude supplies to India in light of supply disruption from Saudi Arabia, the company said on Sept. 17. (Financial Times, 09.17.19)
  • The U.S. will "clearly" overtake Saudi Arabia and Russia as the world's largest oil exporter in the next few years amid an "unprecedented" energy boom, the head of the International Energy Agency said. (RFE/RL, 09.14.19)

Bilateral economic ties:

  • No significant developments.

Other bilateral issues:

  • Moscow wants the U.S. to explain a media report on alleged Russian spying that it says has endangered its diplomats, the Russian Embassy in Washington has said. Russian operatives allegedly decrypted secure FBI communications starting in 2010, forcing the U.S. agency to cut off contacts with some of its Russian informants, Yahoo News reported Sept. 16. The breach was reportedly part of the reason why the Obama administration expelled dozens of Russian diplomats and seized two Russian compounds over alleged election hacking in December 2016. (The Moscow Times, 09.17.19)
  • U.S. President Donald Trump named Robert C. O’Brien, who has served as the U.S. hostage negotiator, as his new national security adviser Sept. 18, replacing the ousted John Bolton. (The Washington Post, 09.18.19)
  • Russia may drop its embezzlement case against embattled U.S. investor Michael Calvey and other executives at the Baring Vostok private equity group, Kommersant reported Sept. 18. (The Moscow Times, 09.18.19)
  • Paul Whelan, whom Russia accuses of espionage, has said a friend framed him and that he isn't a spy, according to a courtroom interview he gave to the BBC. (RFE/RL, 09.18.19)
  • A court in St. Petersburg has fined American teenager Audrey Lorber for possessing 19 grams of marijuana, but Lorber will not have to pay the 15,000-ruble ($235) fine, because she has spent time in pretrial custody since late August. (RFE/RL, 09.17.19)
  • The Associated Press has agreed to accept the jurisdiction of Russia's press council in a dispute between the news agency and the head of the country's elections commission. (AP, 09.17.19)
  • Facebook has apologized for blocking the personal account of Margarita Simonyan, the chief editor of the Kremlin-funded news agencies RT and Sputnik, calling it a mistake. (RFE/RL, 09.14.19)
  • Russia's Federal Antimonopoly Service said Sept. 19 it had fined Google 100,000 rubles ($1,560) for circulating adverts for financial services by Ali Trade, a company it said did not have the required license for such activity. (Reuters, 09.19.19)

II. Russia’s domestic news

Politics, economy and energy:

  • About 1,000 people have demonstrated against alleged violations in the recent municipal elections in Russia’s second-largest city St. Petersburg. Participants in the sanctioned demonstration on Sept. 17 evening held placards reading “That’s enough lying to us.” (AP, 09.17.19)
  • Hundreds of protesters jammed a central square in the Siberian city of Ulan-Ude, amid continuing outrage over recent elections for the city’s mayor and related police violence. Many held banners reading “Russia Will Be Free,” and “We Won’t Recognize Election Results.” A member of Russia’s National Guard has urged colleagues to disobey orders to detain the protesters. (RFE/RL, 09.15.19, The Moscow Times, 09.16.19)
  • A working group set up by exiled Kremlin critic and former oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky has written an open letter signed by 77 public figures condemning “the political repression and lawlessness taking place today in Russia.” Signatories include the creators of the hit television series “Game of Thrones” David Benioff and Dan Weiss, British actor and writer Stephen Fry, Nobel Prize winner Herta Müller, former leaders of Ireland, Lithuania and Bulgaria and a host of lawmakers and heads of Western think tanks. (The Moscow Times, 09.17.19) 
  • Nearly 80 Russian priests have joined the chorus of voices calling on the authorities to stop the criminal prosecutions of protesters and bystanders following this summer’s mass election protests in Moscow. (The Moscow Times, 09.18.19)
  • A Moscow court has ordered the release of Sberbank software engineer Aidar Gubaidulin, one of several activists charged with “mass civil unrest” during the Russian capital’s biggest wave of anti-government protests in nearly a decade. (The Moscow Times, 09.18.19)
  • About 100 Russian actors on Sept.18 held individual protests in front of the presidential administration in Moscow against the imprisonment of actor Pavel Ustinov, who was sentenced to 3 1/2 years in prison for resisting police during a protest rally last month he insists he did not participate in. A Moscow court ruled to release Ustinov on bail days ahead of his appeal following the widespread public outcry. (RFE/RL, 09.18.19, The Moscow Times, 09.20.19)
  • Russia’s economic growth has accelerated slightly in the third quarter year-on-year, the central bank’s analytical department said in a report on Sept. 20. (Reuters, 09.20.19)
  • Russian authorities say two militants have been killed in the Kabardino-Balkaria region in the volatile North Caucasus. (RFE/RL, 09.18.19)
  • Alexander Gabyshev, a Yakut shaman who has been walking for months to Moscow "to drive [Russian President Vladimir] Putin out of the Kremlin" has been detained in the Siberian region of Buryatia. (RFE/RL, 09.19.19)
  • The enterprise responsible for Russian seaport and maritime infrastructure development today operates a total of 36 icebreaking vessels, the largest fleet of its kind in the world, state-run Rosmorport says. According to company deputy general director Vasily Strugov, another nine vessels will be added to the fleet by 2024. (The Barents Observer, 09.20.19)
  • An explosion has hit Russia’s Vector State Research Center of Virology and Biotechnology, a disease research center in Siberia that houses strains of Ebola and smallpox, causing a fire and injuring one worker. Vector announced Sept. 16 that a gas tank erupted during repairs in a sanitary inspection room. (The Moscow Times, 09.17.19)
  • Anti-migrant attitudes have risen for a second consecutive year in Russia, according to a Levada Center survey’s results that experts link to the country’s economic woes. Seventy-two percent of respondents said Russia should limit migration, Levada said Sept. 18, up from both 2018 and 2017. (The Moscow Times, 09.18.19)
  • Researchers estimate that up to 17 percent of legislative seats in Russia are currently held by women, about half the global average; however, only 32 percent of respondents surveyed this year saw a need for more women politicians, compared to 45 percent in 1998, the state-run VTsIOM pollster said in research published Sept. 16. (The Moscow Times, 09.17.19)

Defense and aerospace:

  • The Russian military’s yearly strategic and operational exercises began on Sept. 16. Forces from China, India, Pakistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan will join Russia’s Central Joint Strategic Command (JSC) for the Tsentr-2019 exercises running through Sept. 21. (RFE/RL, 09.16.19)
  • Russia will hold talks with its Middle East partners on selling them new anti-drone weapons systems, Interfax cited Russian state arms exporter Rosoboronexport saying on Sept. 17. (Reuters, 09.17.19)

Security, law-enforcement and justice:

  • A former Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) official has been jailed for four years in what experts say is the country’s first conviction on torture charges against a security official. (The Moscow Times, 09.16.19)
  • A court in southern Russia has found six Jehovah’s Witnesses guilty of “extremism” and sentenced them to prison terms between two and three and a half years Sept. 19. (The Moscow Times, 09.20.19)

III. Foreign affairs, trade and investment

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

  • Russian President Vladimir Putin said on Sept. 17 he planned to visit Israel in January next year. Putin also said that Russia is paying “high attention” to developing mutually beneficial relations with Israel. (Reuters, 09.17.19)
    • Russian President Vladimir Putin said on Sept. 18 that Israel is a Russian-speaking state and that the two countries share a common history and extensive family ties. (The Moscow Times, 09.18.19)
  • Suhail Shaheen, a spokesman for the Taliban political bureau in Qatar, said a Taliban delegation had met with Russia's special envoy for Afghanistan, Zamir Kabulov in Moscow. The talks focused on "the recent developments regarding the peace process in Afghanistan." (RFE/RL, 09.17.19, RFE/RL, 09.13.19)
  • The Kremlin said on Sept. 20 that Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro was due in Moscow soon for talks. (Reuters, 09.20.19)
  • Uganda said on Sept. 18 it had signed an Inter-Governmental Agreement (IGA) with Russia to help the East African country build capacity to exploit nuclear technology for energy, medical and other peaceful purposes. (Reuters, 09.18.19)
  • European lawmakers have nominated Kremlin critic and anti-corruption campaigner Aleksei Navalny for this year's Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought. (RFE/RL, 09.18.19)


  • Russian President Vladimir Putin has met in the Kremlin with Chinese Prime Minister Li Keqiang during his three-day trip to Russia in an effort to boost economic ties. On his arrival on Sept. 16, during which he first met with Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, Li said in St. Petersburg that he hoped to boost investment and ease market access, while expanding economic cooperation. (RFE/RL, 09.19.19, RFE/RL, 09.18.19)


  • A whistleblower complaint about U.S. President Donald Trump made by an intelligence official centers on Ukraine, according to two people familiar with the matter. The complaint involved communications with a foreign leader and a “promise” that Trump made, which was so alarming that a U.S. intelligence official who had worked at the White House went to the inspector general of the intelligence community. (The Washington Post, 09.19.19)
  • As Kyiv seeks to meet Russia, Germany and France by the end of the month for talks on the Donbass conflict, Ukrainian Prime Minister Oleksiy Honcharuk unveiled the first draft of next year’s state budget that foresees a 16 percent spike in defense spending. (RFE/RL, 09.15.19)
  • Ukraine is looking to exchange hundreds more prisoners with Russia as it seeks to pave the way for revived peace talks with Moscow. (Financial Times, 09.15.19)
  • Leonid Kuchma, the Ukrainian envoy for peace talks with Russia-backed separatists, has stressed that Kyiv should not make unacceptable concessions to Russia, such as approving a plan for the separatists to hold elections in areas they control in the Luhansk and Donetsk regions without Ukrainian oversight. (RFE/RL, 09.14.19)
  • Ukraine is seeking a substantial payment from Russia for use of its pipelines to move Russian gas into Europe from 2020 but has still not received a Russian reply to its proposal, Naftogaz Chief Executive Andriy Kobolyev said on Sept. 20. Russia and Ukraine failed to reach a new gas transit deal on Sept. 19 but said the talks were constructive and that they would meet again to try to find an agreement starting in January next year. (Reuters, 09.20.19)
  • The U.S. has accused Moscow of using “sham organizations” to promote its “spurious claim” that Ukraine’s Crimea is part of Russia during an annual human rights conference of the Organization of Security and Cooperation in Europe. (RFE/RL, 09.19.19)
  • Belarus has uncovered an illegal cross-border weapons smuggling network from Ukraine to Russia, the close Moscow ally’s top customs official has said. (The Moscow Times, 09.17.19)
  • Three volunteer battalions that for years fought for Kyiv against Russia-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine voluntarily handed over their weapons to law enforcement on Sept. 11. (RFE/RL, 09.13.19)
  • The instruction of the Ukrainian language has been virtually wiped out in areas that Moscow-backed separatists control in eastern Ukraine, the Kharkiv Human Rights Protection Group says. (RFE/RL, 09.15.19)
  • Ukraine’s prime minister has said Kyiv is seeking a “compromise” with billionaire oligarch Igor Kolomoisky over a $5.5 billion banking scandal, a move that risks alienating the Western backers of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s new government. (Financial Times, 09.17.19)
  • Valeria Hontareva, the former governor of the National Bank of Ukraine, has been invited to the U.S. to address lawmakers after she was nearly run over and her home outside of Kyiv was burned to the ground in an apparent case of arson. (RFE/RL, 09.19.19, RFE/RL, 09.17.19)
  • Roman Dzhumayev, who fought alongside Russian-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine, was on Sept.16 found dead with seven gunshot wounds on a stairwell inside a residential building in the Donetsk region city of Mariupol. (RFE/RL, 09.16.19)
  • Ukrainian Prime Minister Oleksiy Honcharuk says the government could allow the sale of agricultural land from October 2020, after parliament votes to lift the 18-year moratorium. (RFE/RL, 09.19.19)

Russia’s other post-Soviet neighbors:

  • Russia and its close ally Belarus plan to form an economic confederacy by 2022, according to an undisclosed plan of action for integration seen by Kommersant. The economic confederacy entails the creation of a single tax code, civil code and list of foreign trade rules, in addition to unified oil, gas and electricity market regulators. (The Moscow Times, 09.16.19)
  • The U.S. and Belarus plan to resume hosting ambassadors after an 11-year hiatus amid mutual growing concern over Russia's foreign-policy adventures. (RFE/RL, 09.17.19)
  • Russian President Vladimir Putin and Kyrgyz President Sooronbai Jeenbekov have discussed bilateral ties and regional integration in the post-Soviet era near the Russian city of Orenburg. (RFE/RL, 09.20.19)
  • A Sept. 16 shoot-out on a disputed section of the border between Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan in the Ferghana Valley has left at least one border guard dead and 19 other people wounded, officials from both countries say. (RFE/RL, 09.16.19)
  • A court in Yerevan has rejected a motion by lawyers of former Armenian President Robert Kocharian to release their client from pretrial detention. (RFE/RL, 09.17.19)
  • Armenia's police chief Valeri Osipian was sacked on Sept. 18, two days after the resignation of the National Security Service’s head. The government’s official website later announced his appointment as chief adviser to Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian. (RFE/RL, 09.18.19)
  • Kazakh President Qasym-Zhomart Toqaev has named a new foreign minister and chief of staff, according to his website. Mukhtar Tleuberdi is replacing Beibut Atamqulov, who is becoming minister of industry and infrastructure development. (RFE/RL, 09.19.19)
  • Several Kazakh activists have been handed jail terms for taking part in unsanctioned rallies against Chinese investment just days ahead of a planned anti-government demonstration. (RFE/RL, 09.18.19)
  • Turkmenistan's minister of trade and foreign economic ties, Amandurdy Ishanov, has been sentenced to an unspecified prison term on corruption charges just days after being dismissed from his post. (RFE/RL, 09.16.19)
  • An international rights campaign has told the OSCE's human rights conference in Warsaw that Turkmenistan is backtracking on its promises to curtail the practice of enforced disappearances in its prison system. (RFE/RL, 09.18.19)

IV. Quoteworthy

  • No significant developments.