Russia in Review, July 24-31, 2020







Russia in Review, July 24-31, 2020 | Russia Matters


This Week’s Highlights:

  • The U.S. will move almost 12,000 troops out of Germany in a matter of weeks, repositioning air assets to Italy and moving U.S. command structures to Belgium, but also sending 6,400 troops back home—though some of them will rotate in and out of Poland, the Baltic states and the Black Sea region. Mike Pompeo, the U.S. secretary of state, defended the move, saying troops would be deployed “closer to the Russian border” than before and describing Moscow as a “destabilizing authoritarian force,” according to the Financial Times. Russia’s permanent representative to international organizations in Vienna Mikhail Ulyanov countered that if these 12,000 troops are deployed in one of the “‘new’ NATO member states, it would mean a grave violation of the NATO-Russia Founding Act.”
  • U.S. and Russian officials met in Vienna for three days this week for consultations that included their first space security talks since the end of the Cold War, according to reports by the Financial Times and Interfax. One American familiar with the discussions said any space deal similar to those that regulate terrestrial weapons will take time. The two delegation also discussed doctrines and strategic stability, with a special focus on New START, transparency and verification, according to Russia’s Foreign Ministry.  Both delegations expressed interest in improving communications in order to reduce the risks of misunderstanding, help prevent or manage space-related incidents and prevent inadvertent escalation, the State Department said. Russian diplomat Mikhail Ulyanov said he did not remember “a single instance over the past 10 years when Russian-U.S. consultations had been so lengthy, and with such an intensive and substantive agenda,” Nikkei reported. 
  • The U.S. State Department has issued warnings to Russia that there will be repercussions if Moscow pays bounties to the Taliban for successfully killing American soldiers, according to two unnamed senior American officials and another individual “with knowledge of the matter,” according to the Daily Beast. President Trump, however, told an interviewer that he had not discussed the bounty allegations with Putin in a July 23 call or at any other time, The Washington Post reported. “And frankly,” the president added, “that’s an issue that many people said was fake news.” 
  • Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenka demanded an explanation from Moscow after Minsk arrested 33 alleged members of Russian private military contractor Wagner, which is reportedly linked to the Kremlin, ahead of a tense Aug. 9 presidential election. According to multiple press reports, Belarus is tightening control over its border with Russia as it searches for 170 individuals it says are also Wagner mercenaries. While Belarus’s Investigative Committee said the mercenaries may be connected to jailed would-be presidential candidate Sergei Tikhanovsky, his wife, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya—Lukashenka’s leading rival—denied that the opposition was collaborating with the Russians to stage an uprising, AFP reported.  
  • A bipartisan group of U.S. senators has introduced the Ukraine Security Partnership Act, which authorizes up to $300 million per year in military aid to Ukraine, including bolstering Ukraine’s navy and supplying anti-ship, anti-tank, and anti-aircraft weapons, RFE/RL reported. 
  • Russians’ trust in Putin fell to a new low in July, according to a new poll by the Levada Center reported by The Moscow Times. Only 23 percent of respondents named Putin when asked to identify several politicians they trust the most, compared to 59 percent in 2017. Putin’s approval rating remained steady at 60 percent. Another Levada Center poll showed that 45 percent of Russians approve of a recent wave of anti-Kremlin protests in the Far East, which erupted after the FSB arrested a regional governor from the LDPR party on charges of ordering contract killings more than a decade ago. When asked whether they would take part in similar protests in their own region, 29 percent of respondents said they would, The Moscow Times wrote.

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

Nuclear security:

  • No significant developments.

North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs:

  • No significant developments.

Iran and its nuclear program:

  • The U.S. Department of State is expanding sanctions against Iran, imposing “major” new restrictions on the transfer to the country of 22 types of metals and other materials that can be used for nuclear, missile and military programs. Russia will continue cooperation with Iran without regard for U.S. sanctions, deputy chairman of the Federation Council’s Foreign Affairs Committee Vladimir Dzhabarov said. (Interfax, 07.31.30)
  • Russia has sold Iran six ekranoplans or ground-effect vehicles (GEVs), RIA Novosti has reported. The GEV, which flies using the lift generated by its large wings when within about four meters of the surface of water, is recognized as a distinct technology, originally tested in the 1970s by the Soviets. (bne Intellinews, 07.28.20)

New Cold War/saber rattling:

  • In the view of U.S. Strategic Command (STRATCOM) Commander Adm. Charles Richard, “for the first time, the United States will face two peer competitors with nuclear capabilities—China and Russia—by the end of this decade.” (TASS, 07.31.30)
  • U.S. Assistant Secretary for International Security and Nonproliferation Christopher Ford said July 24 that “Moscow and Beijing have already turned space into a war-fighting domain.” (RFE/RL, 07.27.20)
  • Asked if he brought up the allegations that Russia might have paid bounties to Taliban-linked militias for the killing of U.S. troops in his July 23 call with Putin, Trump said he had not. “No, that was a phone call to discuss other things,” Trump replied. “And frankly, that’s an issue that many people said was fake news.” Trump further confirmed: “I have never discussed it with him.” (The Washington Post, 07.29.20)
  • The U.S. State Department has issued warnings to Russia that there will be repercussions if Moscow pays bounties to the Taliban for successfully killing American soldiers, according to two senior American officials and another individual with knowledge of the matter. The warnings were issued through the department’s diplomatic channels after public news reports in June that the U.S. had gathered intelligence about the Russian bounties, those officials said. One official described the communications as “serious.” Another said that Moscow responded by denying the reports it had set up or funded a bounty program to kill U.S. troops. (Daily Beast, 07.29.30)

NATO-Russia relations:

  • The United States will move almost 12,000 troops out of Germany in a matter of weeks, relocating some of them to Belgium and Italy, in a strategic shift the Pentagon says will help deter Russia. Repositioning air assets to Italy will move them closer to the Black Sea region, while moving U.S. command structures to Belgium will help improve coordination with the NATO command. Defense Secretary Mark Esper said on July 29 that the repositioning will strengthen NATO, enhance deterrence against Russia, and improve U.S. strategic and operational flexibility. Of the 34,500 U.S. military personnel stationed in Germany, nearly 5,600 will be repositioned to other NATO countries. Another 6,400 would be based in the United States but conduct some rotational deployments back to Europe, Esper said. The troop relocation is tied to an agreement announced last year to move more than 1,000 U.S. troops to Poland. Esper said 4,500 members of the 2nd Cavalry Regiment would conduct rotational deployments to Poland, the Baltic states and the Black Sea region. (RFE/RL, Wall Street Journal, Financial Times, New York Times, 07.29.20)
    • When announcing the relocation Esper was critical of Berlin. “Germany is the wealthiest country in Europe. Germany can and should pay more to its defense,” he said. “We don’t want to be the suckers anymore… The United States has been taken advantage of for 25 years, both on trade and on the military. We’re protecting Germany, so we’re reducing the force because they’re not paying their bills. It’s very simple. They’re delinquent. So we’re reducing the force. Now if they start paying their bills… I would think about it.” (Financial Times, New York Times, 07.29.20)
    • Mike Pompeo, the U.S. secretary of state, defended this week’s announcement during testimony before a Senate committee, saying Germany was no longer the front line for the U.S. in Europe. Some troops would be deployed “closer to the Russian border” than before, he said, describing Moscow as a “destabilizing authoritarian force.” (Financial Times, 07.30.20)
    • Jeanne Shaheen, a Democratic senator from New Hampshire, said the only country that “has publicly supported the removal of U.S. troops to date has been Russia.” (Financial Times, 07.30.20)
    • Sen. Mitt Romney, one of the few senior Republicans to break with Trump, described the decision as a “gift to Russia.”(Financial Times, 07.29.20)
    • “Instead of strengthening NATO it is going to weaken the alliance,” said Norbert Röttgen, head of the foreign affairs committee of the Bundestag, Germany’s parliament, in a tweet. He argued that the U.S. withdrawal would decrease U.S. military clout in relation to Russia, the Near East and Middle East. (Financial Times, 07.29.20)
    • “We have never hidden that the fewer American soldiers on the European continent, the calmer Europe will be,” said Dmitry Peskov, Kremlin spokesman. “If these 12,000 troops are deployed on the territory of one [of the] ‘new’ NATO member states, it would mean a grave violation of [the] NATO-Russia Founding Act,” said Mikhail Ulyanov, Russia’s permanent representative to international organizations in Vienna. (Financial Times, 07.30.20, TASS, 07.31.30)
    • The Russian military command could place weapons and military units on the country’s western border in light of a possible relocation of U.S. troops from Germany to Poland or the Baltic countries, First Deputy Chairman of the Russian Federation Council’s Foreign Affairs Committee Vladimir Dzhabarov told Interfax on July 29. (Interfax, 07.31.30)

Missile defense:

  • No significant developments.

Arms control:

  • U.S. and Russian officials met in Vienna for three days this week for a series of consultations, which included their first space security talks since the end of the Cold War. One American familiar with the discussions described them as “long, interesting and productive” but any deal similar to those that regulate terrestrial weapons will take time. The challenge for diplomats is to agree on what constitutes a space weapon. The Trump administration wants to dodge defining weapons and instead agree and apply rules of armed conflict to outer space and establish a crisis communications channel akin to the nuclear “hotline” with Russia. Moscow and Beijing have separately proposed limits on ground-based weapons that could pose a risk to satellites, but U.S. experts counter the pair has already developed these. The two delegations also discussed the relevant doctrinal philosophies of the sides, conducted a detailed overview of their approaches to arms control issues in the context of factors influencing strategic stability, with a special focus on the upcoming expiration of the START treaty, according to the Russian Foreign Ministry. They also exchanged views concerning transparency and verification, the ministry said in a statement following consultations in Vienna on July 30. (Interfax, Financial Times, 07.30.20)
    • Officials from the U.S. departments of State, Defense and Energy, as well as the National Security Council, met with Russian officials in a Space Security Exchange under the framework of the Strategic Security Dialogue. In more than 13 hours of discussion, the two sides exchanged views on current and future space threats, policies, strategies and doctrine, and discussed a forward-looking agenda to promote safe, professional and sustainable activities in space. Both delegations expressed interest in continuing these discussions and improving communications, such as on how to enhance communications between the two countries about space-related operational issues in order to reduce the risks of misunderstanding, help prevent or manage space-related incidents and prevent inadvertent escalation. (State.gov, 07.28.20)
    • “I remember not a single instance over the past 10 years when the Russian-U.S. consultations had been so lengthy, and with such an intensive and substantive agenda,” Mikhail Ulyanov, Russia’s permanent representative to international organizations in Vienna, said. “Not just talking, but such specific matters.” Yet the diplomat was less sanguine about the outcome of the talks. “We can hardly expect any results,” he said. (Nikkei, 07.29.20)

Counterterrorism:

  • A federal appeals court on July 31 overturned the death sentence of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the man convicted in the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing. Tsarnaev’s lawyers had argued that intense media coverage had made it impossible to have a fair trial in Boston. They also pointed to social media posts from two jurors suggesting they harbored strong opinions even before the 2015 trial started. (AP, 07.31.20)

Conflict in Syria:

  • Russia deployed a SIGINT facility in Syria’s Homs province to eavesdrop on U.S. and Israeli warplanes and air defense systems, according to Russia’s Aviapro news portal. (Russia Matters, 07.27.20)
  • Russia welcomes the decision to convene the next session of Syria’s constitutional committee in Geneva on Aug. 24, Russia’s Permanent Representative to the U.N. Vassily Nebenzia said at the U.N. Security Council session on July 23. (TASS, 07.23.20)
  • As Israel ramps up airstrikes on Iranian forces and their proxies in Syria, Israeli sources are increasingly anxious that Iran will deploy its Khordad anti-aircraft system to Syria and, therefore, has asked Russia to rein in Iran; instead, Russia sent an aircraft to shadow Israeli strike planes. The Russian publication Avia.Pro reported that Russian warplanes were scrambled to possibly intercept  Israeli warplanes during the latter’s attack on Syria on July 20. (BreakingDefense, 07.21.20, Russia Matters, 07.27.20)
  • Russia may have deployed combat dolphins to help its war in Syria. Satellite imagery show marine mammal pens were at the Russian naval base in Tartus. (Al Monitor, 07.20.20)
  • Speaking at the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee on July 30 in his first visit to the panel in more than a year, Mike Pompeo boasted  that “300 Russians who were in Syria” are “no longer on the planet,” in reference to a 2018 skirmish in Syria that resulted in the United States’ killing of dozens of Russian military contractors. (The Washington Post, 07.30.20)

Cyber security:

  • The European Union has imposed its first-ever sanctions against alleged cyberattackers, targeting four Russian citizens and a unit of Moscow’s GRU military intelligence agency. The EU sanctions list also includes two entities based in China and North Korea, as well as two Chinese nationals. Restrictive measures will be taken against the six individuals and three entities “responsible for or involved in various cyberattacks,” including the attempt to hack into the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, the European Council said in a statement on July 30. (RFE/RL, 07.30.20)

Elections interference:

  • In prepared remarks to Congress William Barr, the U.S. attorney-general, testified that “ever since I made it clear that I was going to do everything I could to get to the bottom of the grave abuses involved in the bogus ‘Russiagate’ scandal, many of the Democrats on this committee have attempted to discredit me by conjuring up a narrative that I am simply the president’s factotum who disposes of criminal cases according to his instructions.” (CNN, 07.27.20, Financial Times, 07.28.20)
  • Not long after the early 2017 publication of a notorious dossier about Trump jolted Washington, an expert in Russian politics told the F.B.I. he had been one of its key sources, drawing on his contacts to deliver information that would make up some of the most salacious and unproven assertions in the document. The F.B.I. had approached the expert, a man named Igor Danchenko, as it vetted the dossier’s claims. Danchenko’s hope of remaining anonymous evaporated last week after Attorney General William Barr directed the F.B.I. to declassify a redacted report about its three-day interview of Danchenko in 2017 and hand it over to Sen. Lindsey Graham. (New York Times, 07.25.20)
  • After President Donald Trump fired FBI director James Comey, on May 9, 2017, his former subordinates grew so concerned that Trump would try to shut down the Russia investigation that they secreted at least three copies of key documents, including Comey’s memos, in remote locations around the bureau. (CNN, 07.30.20)

Energy exports from CIS:

  • U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has told lawmakers that the United States intends to impose sanctions on firms that continue to help Russia build a natural-gas pipeline to Europe as he sought to dispel concerns about Washington’s commitment to halt the controversial project. “We will do everything we can to make sure that that pipeline doesn’t threaten Europe,” Pompeo told a senate hearing on July 30, adding: “We want Europe to have real, secure, stable, safe energy resources that cannot be turned off in the event Russia wants to.” (RFE/RL, 07.30.20)

U.S.-Russian economic ties:

  • No significant developments.

U.S.-Russian relations in general:

  • The State Department has tapped a career diplomat to coordinate efforts to bolster the U.S. position in the Arctic. James DeHart begins work July 29 as the first U.S. coordinator for the Arctic region, representing State in a Trump administration campaign encompassing several U.S. government departments and agencies. He will report directly to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Deputy Secretary Stephen Biegun, advising them on Arctic policy and engaging other Arctic nations in regional talks. (Wall Street Journal, 07.29.20)
  • U.S. officials have identified three English-language websites that they say Russia is using to spread disinformation about the coronavirus pandemic to exploit the U.S. struggle to contain the outbreak. The U.S. officials were quoted on July 28 by the Associated Press as saying the activity is linked to Russian intelligence services, and they identify two Russians who have held senior roles in Russia’s GRU military intelligence unit as responsible for a disinformation effort aimed at U.S. and Western audiences. This included amplifying false Chinese arguments that the virus was created by the United States military and articles that said Russia’s medical assistance could bring a new détente with Washington. (RFE/RL, 07.29.20, New York Times, 07.28.20)
  • Two months after the U.S. imposed sanctions on Russian construction billionaires Arkady and Boris Rotenberg in March 2014, the brothers sent their art adviser on a shopping spree, according to a Senate investigation report released July 29. At a Sotheby’s auction that month in New York, the Rotenbergs, who are lifelong friends of Russian President Vladimir Putin, paid $6.8 million for 10 works of art, including a cubist still life by Georges Braque and a swirling tableau by Marc Chagall, the report said. Days later, the Rotenbergs again added to their collection, paying a private U.S. dealer $7.5 million for “Chest,” René Magritte’s 1961 painting. (Wall Street Journal, 07.29.20)
  • YouTube has blocked accounts of the Tsargrad TV channel in Russia and its former chief editor, pro-Kremlin analyst Alexander Dugin. (RFE/RL, 07.28.20)
  • A federal appeals court in Washington will take a second look at a judge’s effort to scrutinize the Justice Department’s decision to drop its case against Trump’s former national security adviser Michael Flynn. (The Washington Post, 07.30.20)
  • A Russian court on July 30 sentenced former U.S. marine Trevor Reed to nine years in prison for assaulting police officers while drunk. The U.S. ambassador to Russia, John Sullivan, condemned the sentencing of 29-year-old Reed as “theater of the absurd.” Reed, a student and former marine from Texas, allegedly attacked police after attending a party in Moscow last year. (AFP, 07.30.20)

II. Russia’s domestic policies

Domestic politics, economy and energy:

  • Russia has registered 5,482 new Covid-19 cases in the past 24 hours, taking its total to 839,981, the country’s Covid-19 response center said in a statement July 31. Meanwhile, 161 new deaths were reported, taking the nationwide count to 13,963, according to the statement. (Xinhua, 07.31.30)
  • Here’s a link to RFE/RL’s interactive map of the virus’s spread around the world, including in Russia and the rest of post-Soviet Eurasia. For a comparison of the number of new cases and its rate of change in the U.S. and Russia, visit this Russia Matters resource.
  • At a meeting chaired by Putin, Deputy Prime Minister Tatyana Golikova singled out two vaccines under development by a research institute in Moscow and a lab in Siberia. Production of the first, which is being tested by the Moscow-based Gamaleya institute of epidemiology and the Defense Ministry, is set for September, Golikova said. Another vaccine being developed by the Vektor state laboratory near Novosibirsk should be launched in October, she added. (The Moscow Times, 07.29.20)
  • Russians’ trust in President Vladimir Putin fell to a new low in July as tens of thousands of protesters took to the streets in anti-Kremlin protests in the Far East, according to newly published results from the independent Levada Center pollster. Only 23 percent of respondents named Putin when asked to identify which politicians they trust the most, the Levada Center said July 29. That figure is less than half of what it was in November 2017, when 59 percent of respondents named Putin as the politician they trust the most, and three percentage points lower than it was last month. Putin’s approval rating remained steady at 60 percent. (The Moscow Times, 07.29.20)
  • Forty-five percent of Russians surveyed by Levada said they approve of a recent wave of anti-Kremlin protests in the Far East, the pollster said. Just 17 percent of respondents said they view the protests negatively, while 26 percent said they view them with neutrality. When asked whether they would take part in similar protests in their own region, 29 percent of respondents said they would. (The Moscow Times, 07.26.20)
  • Russian President Vladimir Putin has signed into law a controversial bill that allows voting over as many as three days during elections. (RFE/RL, 07.31.30)
  • Ivan Safronov, a journalist-turned-space adviser arrested on treason charges, has turned down a plea deal that would have required him to disclose his journalistic sources, his lawyer told Interfax on July 28. (The Moscow Times, 07.28.20)
  • Wildfires currently burning across Russia have doubled in size over the past week, the state-run TASS news agency reported July 27, citing a source in the Federal Forestry Agency. According to Russia’s agency for aerial forest fire management, Aviales, a total of 148 forest fires were burning across 67,913 hectares of land as of midnight on that date. A week earlier, 155 fires were burning across 32,984 hectares of land. (The Moscow Times, 07.27.20)
  • Russians have been trying to obtain foreign passports and residence permits in unprecedented numbers since the coronavirus pandemic shut borders worldwide, Forbes Russia reported July 27. Demand for foreign residence permits was up 20 percent in March-May 2020 compared with the same period last year, Forbes writes. (The Moscow Times, 07.27.20)

Defense and aerospace:

  • President Vladimir Putin said the Russian Navy will get 40 new vessels this year, as he attended a naval parade in St. Petersburg marking Navy Day in Russia. The July 26 event featured 46 ships and other vessels and over 4,000 troops and aimed to “demonstrate the growing power of our navy,” Putin said. He also said the navy will be equipped with hypersonic weapons to boost its combat capabilities. (RFE/RL, 07.26.20)

Security, law-enforcement and justice:

  • The British coroner investigating the 2018 Novichok poisoning of Dawn Sturgess will have to expand the scope of the forthcoming inquest into her death, to potentially include the role of Russian agents in addition to the two accused of killing her, the High Court has ruled. (Financial Times, 07.24.20)
  • The widow of an ethnic Chechen who was gunned down earlier this month in a Vienna suburb says her husband was an informant for Austrian security agencies and that police were examining his cell phone, which she said had recordings and other possible evidence. Zarema Umarova spoke to RFE/RL on July 24, a day after relatives of her slain husband, Mamikhan Umarov, issued an unusual video appeal in which they claimed responsibility for his killing and appeared to absolve Chechnya’s notorious strongman leader, Ramzan Kadyrov, of blame. (RFE/RL, 07.24.20)
  • The Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) has said it has prevented a terrorist attack at a crowded place in Moscow and killed a man from Central Asia who is suspected of planning it in an exchange of fire in the city of Khimki outside of Moscow. Searching the apartment rented by the offender, operatives found evidence proving that he was linked to emissaries of international terrorists in Syria and was preparing a massive shooting attack on ordinary citizens, the press service said. (Interfax, 07.27.20)
  • The FSB has said it has put an end to the activities of an Islamic State cell that had been engaged in funding terrorists and plotting attacks on Russian servicemen and officers of law enforcement agencies. (Interfax, 07.29.20)
  • The FSB in a joint operation with the Interior Ministry and the National Guard detained suspected members of a regional branch of an international terrorist organization outlawed in Russia, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan. (TASS, 07.23.20)

III. Russia’s relations with other countries

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

  • A top U.N. official has warned of the huge risk of a miscalculation triggering direct confrontation between rival foreign powers in Libya as weapons and mercenaries continue to pour into the north African state. Stephanie Williams, acting U.N. envoy to Libya, told the Financial Times that an “alphabet soup” of foreign states were violating an international arms embargo as forces mobilized around the strategic city of Sirte. The Mediterranean port is the latest frontline in a 15-month civil conflict between a U.N.-backed government in Tripoli and fighters loyal to renegade general Khalifa Haftar. (Financial Times, 07.27.20)
  • Military contractors linked to the Kremlin have seized control of two of Libya’s largest oil facilities in recent weeks, heightening tensions between Russia and the U.S. over Moscow’s growing footprint in the turbulent North African nation. Since June, armed fighters from the Wagner Group, a Russian firm with reported ties to the Russian government, have moved in to secure Libya’s largest oil field and its most important oil-exporting port, Es Sider. The Kremlin didn’t respond to a request for comment on the Russian fighters’ presence in Libya and the takeover of oil installations. (Wall Street Journal, 07.26.20)
  • German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas has rejected allowing Russia’s return to the Group of Seven (G7), after U.S. President Donald Trump raised the prospect of Moscow rejoining the club of leading economic powers. (RFE/RL, 07.27.20)
  • German authorities have asked Russian officials if Jan Marsalek, the former Wirecard AG executive who ran operations for the disgraced fintech company, had entered Russia and requested they act on an Interpol notice issued for his arrest. (Wall Street Journal, 07.29.20)
  • Two Russian Su-27 fighter jets are suspected of violating Finnish airspace off the coast of Helsinki on July 28, the Finnish Defense Ministry said. (AFP, 07.29.20)
  • Russian-British media owner Yevgeny Lebedev has been appointed to the House of Lords in Britain. Lebedev owns Britain’s Independent and Evening Standard newspapers. His father, Russian oligarch Alexander Lebedev, is co-owner of the independent Novaya Gazeta newspaper in Russia. (The Moscow Times, 07.31.20)
  • British Airways is expected to resume flights to Russia on Aug. 2, Russia’s Federal Air Transport Agency said on July 31, as Russia plans to restart some regular international flights. The first regular flight by Aeroflot will fly from Moscow to Istanbul on Aug. 1. Aeroflot also plans two Moscow-London flights that day. (Reuters, 07.31.20)

China-Russia: Allied or Aligned?

  • Steve Biegun, deputy U.S. secretary of state, told the Financial Times last month that he was confident the U.S. could be more agile and find “the seam” in the relationship between Russia and China. He said that seam was held together solely by a “mutual determination to challenge the United States.” (Financial Times, 07.25.20)
  • Construction has started on the southern portion of the China-Russia East natural gas pipeline, which carries supplies from the Power of Siberia system in Russia, China Oil & Gas Piping Network Corp (PipeChina) said in a statement on July 28. (Reuters, 07.28.20)
  • Chinese news portals including NetEase and Sohu have reported a delay in the delivery of S-400 mobile missiles to the Chinese military. They cited the Chinese Defense Ministry and Beijing’s ambassador extraordinary and plenipotentiary to Moscow Zhang Hanhui as blaming the Covid-19 epidemic for the delay. (Asia Times, 07.29.20)
  • China has become the largest buyer of Russian meat, replacing Ukraine, Russian news agency RBC reported. China bought half of the $336 million worth of meat that Russia exported in the first half of 2020. Ukraine had become the largest buyer of Russian meat after the beginning of the conflict in Donbas, but then yielded the No.1 spot to China, according to RBC and Vedomosti. (Russia Matters, 07.28.20)

Ukraine:

  • Nineteen percent of Ukrainians believe that in general, things in Ukraine are going in the right direction, and 68 percent have the opposite opinion, according to the results of a survey conducted by Rating Sociological Group July 15-20, 2020. Seventeen percent believe that the economic situation in Ukraine will improve in the next six months, 35 percent believe that it will not change, and 40 percent expect it to worsen. Some 57 percent of respondents see the reason for possible economic crisis in the incompetence of the authorities, although 26 percent believe that economic decline will come due to the coronavirus pandemic, and 8 percent believe that the war in Donbas will be the cause. (Interfax, 07.27.20)
  • Some 30.2 percent of those respondents surveyed by Rating who have already made up their minds said they would vote for incumbent President Volodymyr Zelenskiy if a presidential election were to be held in Ukraine in the near future, according to the July 15-20 survey. At the same time, 14.4 percent would support the candidacy of co-chairman of the parliamentary faction Opposition Platform – For Life Yuri Boiko, while 13.7 percent would support foremer president Petro Poroshenko, leader of the European Solidarity party. (Interfax, 07.27.20)
  • The trust rating among national politicians is topped by Zelenskiy, who is trusted by 41 percent and not trusted by 53 percent, according to the July 15-20 Rating poll. Some 27 percent of respondents trust former Prime Minister Volodymyr Groysman, while 63 percent do not. (Interfax, 07.27.20)
  • Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin discussed the conflict in eastern Ukraine hours before a fresh cease-fire was due to enter into force. Both expressed support for the truce between Ukrainian forces and Russia-backed separatists that was set to begin at midnight on July 27. Zelenskiy’s office said the Ukrainian president told Putin during the phone call on July 26 that further steps were needed to free Ukrainian citizens being held in eastern Ukraine, Crimea and Russia. The Kremlin said Putin told Zelenskiy that Ukraine’s decision to hold regional elections in 2020 contradicts the Minsk peace accords aimed at resolving the conflict. (RFE/RL, 07.26.20)
  • Moscow-backed separatists on July 27 breached a tense ceasefire in eastern Ukraine just hours after it began, the Ukrainian army said, but the separatists denied the accusation. The ceasefire had been agreed last week by negotiators from Ukraine, Russia and the international monitoring group OSCE. (AFP, 07.27.20)
  • Ukraine’s first President Leonid Kravchuk has agreed to take the post of presidential envoy in the trilateral contact group on resolving the armed conflict in the country’s east. The 86-year-old Kravchuk announced his decision on July 30, two days after another former Ukrainian president, Leonid Kuchma, quit the post. (RFE/RL, 07.30.20)
  • A bipartisan group of U.S. senators has introduced legislation to provide military assistance and reform support to Ukraine over the next five years. The Ukraine Security Partnership Act submitted on July 30 authorizes up to $300 million per year in foreign military aid to Ukraine. The legislation calls for U.S. military aid to help bolster Ukraine’s navy so it can better defend its Black Sea territory. The Black Sea borders three NATO allies and is of strategic importance to the United States. The legislation authorizes the secretary of state to supply such lethal aid as anti-ship, anti-tank and anti-aircraft weapons. The act also calls for the State Department to set up a working group on Ukraine with European allies to prioritize economic and policy reform assistance and to again appoint a special envoy to Kyiv for peace talks. (RFE/RL, 07.31.20)
  • On July 25, five NATO ships participating in the Sea Breeze 2020 exercise, led by the flagship of the SNMG2 group, entered the port of Odessa, the local news site Dumskaya reported. (Interfax, 07.27.20)
  • On July 28, the foreign ministers of Ukraine, Poland and Lithuania announced the creation of a new regional cooperation initiative, the Lublin Triangle, which will focus on the cultural, economic and strategic interests of the three central European nations. (Emerging Europe, 07.29.20)
  • Ukraine has reiterated its determination to bring Iran to justice for the downing of a Ukrainian airliner. Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba told journalists in Kyiv on July 31 that talks with an Iranian delegation were “constructive” and that Tehran’s readiness for the negotiations to establish the circumstances of the tragedy, bring the individuals responsible for it to justice and pay compensation was an important move. (RFE/RL, 07.31.20)
  • Privatbank, the Ukrainian lender nationalized by the state in 2016, now claims its former owners laundered nearly $800 million through the United States. After analyzing additional bank records, Privatbank filed an amended complaint in a Delaware court on July 21 against tycoons Ihor Kolomoyskiy and Hennadiy Boholyubov, claiming the men laundered $660 million through a group of U.S. companies called Optima and an additional $100 million through other U.S. entities. The Kyiv-based lender is seeking hundreds of millions of dollars in compensation from the tycoons. (RFE/RL, 07.25.20)

Russia’s other post-Soviet neighbors:

  • Belarus strongman Alexander Lukashenko on July 29 demanded an explanation from Moscow after Minsk arrested 33 individuals alleged to be Russian fighters ahead of next month’s tense presidential election. “It is necessary to immediately turn to appropriate Russian structures so that they explain what is going on,” Lukashenko said at an emergency meeting. Earlier in the day state media had claimed the group of Russians was plotting to destabilize the country. State news agency Belta said the detained men were members of the Wagner group, a shadowy private military firm that is reportedly controlled by an ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin and promotes Moscow’s interests in Ukraine, Syria and Libya. (AFP, 07.29.20)
    • The Kremlin on July 31 asked Belarus to release the 33 Russian men detained in Minsk. “We hope that in the very near future this incident will be explained by our Belarussian allies and that the citizens will be released,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters. He added that the “groundless detention of Russian citizens does not quite fit the parameters of allied relations.” Peskov said the men were in transit to Istanbul before flying to “a third country.” He also said there was “no such [legal] concept” as “Wagner PMC [private military company]” in Russia. (Interfax, 07.30.20, RFE/RL, 07.31.20, AFP, 07.31.30, BBC, 07.30.20)
    • Belarus is cracking down on its border with Russia as it searches for 170 mercenaries it says are from the Kremlin-linked Wagner Group military contractor. Belarus will “significantly strengthen” its security presence at its borders, “including the border with Russia,” security council chief Andrei Ravkov told reporters after an emergency government meeting July 29. This will include tracking individuals who cross the state border, including the land border. (The Moscow Times, 07.31.20)
    • Some analysts suggested the arrest of the Russians gave Lukashenka an excuse to crack down harder on the opposition, while others said Moscow might indeed be considering some action. Russian political analyst Tatyana Stanovaya said the Kremlin had apparently not given up on its unification plans. Hastened regime change in Belarus could become a political priority for Kremlin if anti-Russian rhetoric from Belarusian officials persists, or if the arrested Russian fighters are extradited to Ukraine, according to Russian military analyst Pavel Felgenhauer. (AFPJamestown, 07.31.20)
    • The Investigative Committee of Belarus told state-controlled news outlet Belta on June 30 that the 33 Russians apprehended near Minsk on suspicion of preparing mass riots on July 29 may be connected to jailed opposition blogger and would-be presidential candidate Sergei Tikhanovsky and Nikolai Statkevich, an opposition leader who ran in the 2010 presidential race against President Lukashenka. (bne Intellinews, 07.30.20)
    • Russian author Zakhar Prilepin, who fought alongside Moscow-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine, said he knew some of the detained men. Writing on Facebook, Prilepin suggested that the fighters probably used Belarus as a transit point and were en route to “some other destination,” which he said Belarus “surely knows very well.” (AFP, 07.29.20)
    • Kyiv says it will seek the extradition of the alleged Wagner contractors being held in Belarus. (RFE/RL, 07.31.20)
    • During a massive campaign rally in the capital Minsk, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, wife of the jailed blogger and leading rival to Belarussian strongman Alexander Lukashenko, denied claims that the opposition was working with Russian mercenaries to incite mass unrest. She said people only wanted a fair election. (AFP, 07.31.30)
  • Tens of thousands of people have gathered in the Belarusian capital for the largest opposition rally in the country since the start of the campaign ahead of a presidential election on Aug. 9. The Vyasna human rights center said at least 63,000 supporters of registered presidential candidate Svetlana Tikhanovskaya turned up for the demonstration in Minsk’s Park of Peoples’ Friendship on July 30, as President Alexander Lukashenka has faced mounting public opposition in recent months after 26 years in power. (RFE/RL, 07.30.20)
  • The United States called on Belarus on July 30 to conduct its upcoming presidential election in a free and fair manner as it expressed disappointment over the lack of Western observers to monitor the vote. “We deeply regret that the OSCE will not have the opportunity to send observers to see this election,” George Kent, who serves as deputy assistant secretary overseeing policy toward Belarus, told RFE/RL in an interview on July 30. (RFE/RL, 07.30.20)
  • A high-profile political analyst and strategist who has advised presidential candidates in the U.S., Russia and Ukraine has been detained in Belarus ahead of a tense election. “I have been arrested,” Vitali Shkliarov, a Harvard University fellow, said on Telegram without providing further details. (AFP, 07.30.20)
  • The ambassadors of Armenia and Azerbaijan have called on their countrymen to avoid “provocations” and confrontations amid reports that ethnic Armenians and Azerbaijanis have clashed in Moscow and some other Russian cities in recent days amid an escalation of tensions between the two South Caucasus countries. (RFE/RL, 07.27.20)
  • Over 4,000 personnel of military units and formations of Russia’s Southern Military District kicked off force-on-force drills at training grounds in the Volgograd and Rostov regions and on the territory of Armenia, the district’s press office reported on July 31. (TASS, 07.31.30)
  • Azerbaijan’s Defense Ministry announced on July 27 that Azerbaijan and Turkey would hold joint military drills involving the two countries’ ground and air forces. The ground forces exercise is set to take place in Baku and Nakhchivan on August 1-5, while air forces exercise will be held in Baku, Nakhchivan, Ganja, Kurdamir and Yevlakh between July 29 and August 10. (TASS, 07.31.30)
  • The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe is rudderless after France, Canada, Norway and Iceland earlier this month refused to reappoint its secretary-general, Swiss diplomat Thomas Greminger, after his three-year term expired. The move came in response to a decision by Azerbaijan, joined by Tajikistan and Turkey, to object to a second term for Frenchman Harlem Désir as representative for media freedom at the organization. In the subsequent squabbling, member states also declined to reappoint the heads of the human rights and minorities offices. (Financial Times, 07.27.20)
  • The United Nations has called for an independent investigation into the death of an ethnic Uzbek rights defender, Azimjan Askarov, while in Kyrgyz custody. Askarov, a 69-year-old human rights activist died in a Bishkek prison hospital on July 25 of what Kyrgyz officials described as pneumonia. (RFE/RL, 07.28.20)
  • Moldovan President Igor Dodon has signed a decree on the creation of a Commission for Constitutional Reform. Dodon outlined several issues that in his view require the creation of the commission. Among them are the “constitutional deadlocks” from 2014-2020 in president-government-parliament relations. The parliament has repeatedly suspended Dodon from his post to pass laws Dodon objected to. (bne Intellinews, 07.31.30)



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