Russia Monthly Digest: Russia-Ukraine Tensions Rise in the Black Sea and Putin’s Stasi Card Discovered in an Archive8 min read

 In News, Politics, Russia

1st December – At the end of November, Russian Navy forces attacked and seized three Ukrainian Navy vessels in the Black Sea. As a result of this, the Ukrainian Government voted to impose martial law for 30 days in the areas with a Russian or Moldovan border (including Transnistria, a semi-recognised independent state). Martial law is due to end on the 27th of December, however it may well continue if the tensions between Ukraine and Russia do not dissipate. On the 4th of December some ports were partially unblocked by Russian forces, apparently due to a “stern international response”, in the words of Infrastructure Minister Volodymyr Omelyan. See more on this issue in last month’s What’s Up Ukraine?

On the 22nd of December, the UK sent a warship to the Black Sea in order to communicate that “President Putin… cannot continue to act with no regard or care for international laws or international norms” – these are the words of defence secretary Gavin Williamson when he paid a pre-Christmas visit to the HMS Echo.

4th December – The US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo issued Russia a 60-day ultimatum over the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) treaty, stating that if Russia did not begin to comply, the US would begin the process of withdrawal from the agreement and could then begin to produce, test, and deploy new nuclear missiles. The INF treaty has been a particular source of tension between the two superpowers since October which shows no signs of fizzling-out. After Pompeo’s statement, Putin issued his own, saying that the US had provided “no evidence” that Russia had violated the agreement and suggested the possibility of an arms race: “Apparently, our American partners believe that the situation has changed so drastically that the US should also have such weapons… What response is our side to give? A simple one: then we’ll do the same.” Under the terms of the agreement, 60 days is too short a time for complete withdrawal – the process would only begin formally in February, then taking a further 6 months. This means that the landmark Treaty, signed by Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev in 1987, could be null and void as early as August 2019.

10th December A Russian priest is being investigated after sharing multiple photos of himself and various high-level fashion products. Posing with brands such as Louis Vuitton and Gucci on an Instagram account called ‘archpriesttver’, the priest wore shoes and showed-off luxury bags . Vyacheslav Baskakov, who is stationed in the Tver region near Moscow, has apologised for the photos and shut down the account: “[I will] suffer penance… since I can’t behave myself humbly and appropriately.” He also noted that most of the items he was pictured with were not actually purchased by him, but instead taken in stores.

11th December – Prominent Soviet dissident and human-rights activists Lyudmila Alekseyeva died this week, with Putin attending Alekseyeva’s funeral and giving a short speech. The Russian president was criticised heavily by opposition politician Grigory Yavlinksy, who dismissed Putin’s speech as “just words and gestures.” Alekseyeva’s human-rights career began in the 1960s, where she campaigned for dissidents who criticised the authorities in the foreign press. In May, 1976, she began the Moscow Helsinki Group with fellow activist Yury Orlov (amongst others), with the aim of monitoring the U.S.S.R’s compliance with the Helsinki Accords, which had been implemented to reduce tensions between the communist bloc and the West, and to promote fundamental freedoms such as the right to free speech. The Soviet Authorities arrested all but three of the founding members shortly after. In 1977, Alekseyeva fled to the United States with her family and continued her activism, eventually returning to Russia in 1993 after the fall of the Soviet Union. She was fiercely outspoken against rights abuses for the rest of her life, and held a strong anti-Kremlin stance on issues such as the right to protest, issues on democratic freedoms, and Putin’s presidency. You can read more about her life here.

Putin also unveiled a statue to Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, another prominent dissident, and writer, who would have turned 100 on the 11th of December, later in the day. Putin referred to him as “a true, real patriot of Russia… who stood up against any manifestations of Russophobia”. However, Putin seemed to avoid stating exactly what Solzhenitsyn was famous for: his explicit accounts of the Gulag prison-camps, and his constant critique of the Soviet system – despite his exile from the U.S.S.R and Russia until 1994. The writer and activist died in 2008.

December 12th – A high-tech robot, revealed at a state-sponsored event, turned out to be a man in a suit after eagle-eyed journalists spotted his neck-outline on photos posted to Instagram. ‘Robot Boris’ was featured on Russian TV dancing, walking, and talking; however, journalists quickly began to question the legitimacy of the technology. Although the organisers of the event, Proyektoria (which is aimed at children) never claimed that the robot was real, the coverage on state-TV suggested it was. The main question raised about the authenticity of the robot was ‘Why does it look like a man would fit perfectly inside it?’ – turns out that it was a costume designed to do exactly that.

– Putin’s former ID card as a member of the Stasi (the secret police of the German Democratic Republic) was found in an archive by American historian Dougal Selvage, which according to German newspaper Blid, proves that Putin was working for the Stasi as well as the KGB, the Soviet secret police. Putin did work as a liaison between the two organisations in the 1980s, however, Dmitri Peskov, a Kremlin spokesman, said: “as is well known at the time when the Soviet Union existed, the KGB and the Stasi were partner intelligence agencies, so you probably couldn’t rule out an exchange of such identity cards.” At the fall of the Berlin wall in 1989, Putin has said he had brandished a pistol to stop angry crowds from gaining access to the intelligence agencies’ office in Dresden as he and colleagues burned reams of secret KGB files.

December 14th – Government critic and chess icon Garry Kasparov has said that Russia is losing its standing on the world stage due to its “aggressive politics”.  Kasparov said that “convincing the free world that it was pointless to negotiate with Putin” was the main aim of the tactics, as well as influencing and interfering in other elections, most notably the 2016 US Presidential race which saw Donald Trump reach the Oval Office over Hillary Clinton. “Russian propaganda portrayed Trump’s election victory as Putin’s triumph…”. Yet, “as it turned out, the US president… is limited in his ability to pursue the policy that Putin would have expected from him”. Kasparov also referenced other blows to Putin’s regime, such as the EU sanctions against the Russian banking and energy sectors after the annexation of Crimea.He warned that “[Putin’s policy of trying to] create division in the Western World [is] far from over”, and that it would be the citizens of Russia who would ultimately pay the full cost of the Kremlin’s strategy,“just as nations have always paid for the crimes of their dictators”.  

– December 17th – A report released indicated that a wide range of social media platforms had been utilised and influenced by Russia in the run-up to the 2016 US presidential elections. Sites such as YouTube, Tumblr, and Instagram displayed various forms of propaganda on their page , which the US Senate – the funders of the report – say was allowed to happen due to a “belated and uncoordinated response” by the social media firms. The report comes from Oxford University and the social network analysis firm Graphika, who say that Russia used various digital-marketing style techniques to make sure the target audience was large and across multiple channels. Approaches that were used involved targeting conservative voters with posts about guns and immigration, and spreading misinformation about the electoral process to African-American left wing voters.

Also on this day, a Siberian strongman, dressed in nothing but underwear, stunned local villagers by hanging onto and riding a excavator bucket and dousing himself in ice water at temperatures close to -40C.

December 20th  – Putin held his annual year-end press conference today, with very little new information or opinions coming to the forefront in the nearly four-hour long event. The big headline-maker of the day was Putin’s reveal that he may one day get married again; otherwise, the conference was mainly a repeat of issues and statements we already know about: tensions between Kyiv and Moscow are entirely to blame on Ukraine; the world is facing a nuclear holocaust if the IMF Treaty falls through; the economy is doing well, but Russia could use a technological breakthrough. However, he did call for better UK-Russia relations and that it was in “the interests of both sides to get out of this dead end”. He also said that the UK should go ahead with Brexit – “otherwise it wasn’t really a referendum”.

– On the same day as Putin’s annual year-end press conference, two members of dissident performance group Pussy Riot, Luisine Djanyan and Aleksej Knedljakovskij, who, together with their two children, sought asylum in Sweden in 2017, reported that their applications had been denied by Swedish authorities. Knedljakovskij told SVT Nyheter that the ”Swedish Migration Agency has not considered the reports made by Russian and Swedish human rights organisations, which have advised us to leave Russia due to threats to our safety and security”.

Djanyan and Knedljakovskij fled Russia after having received threats about getting killed. As reported by Dagens Nyheter, the couple has stated that they will appeal the decision  to the Swedish Migration Court.

Main Sources: BBC (EN/RUS), CNN (EN), The Guardian (EN), The Moscow Times (EN) RFE/RL (EN/RUS), The Telegraph (EN)

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