Russia Monthly Digest: Russia suspends observation of INF Treaty, and polar bears bother remote Russian island5 min read

 In News, Politics, Russia

– On January 27th, the world’s so-called oldest ever person, Koku Istambulova, died at the age of either 129 or 130, in Chechnya. Her identification document, issued in 2003, states that she was born in 1889, however, no other evidence of her birth exists. Residents of the Caucuses are noted for their long life spans; Russian news agency TASS had earlier reported that Nanu Shaova, of Kabardino-Balkaria, had died at the age of 128.

– On February 2ndthe USA officially suspended its observation of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty that had been signed by Mikhail Gorbachev and Ronald Reagan in 1987.  U.S Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said that “for years, Russia has violated terms of the INF Treaty without remorse… to this day, Russia remains in material breach of obligations… the United States will therefore suspend its obligations under the INF treaty effective February 2nd… effective in six months, pursuant to Article 15.”

President Trump issued a written statement on the issue, saying that “we will not remain constrained by [the INF’s] terms while Russia misrepresents its actions. We cannot be the only country in the world unilaterally bound by this treaty, or any other.” Pompeo claimed that the treaty had been discussed in detail and at the highest levels over the last six years in order to try and save it. NATO allies, including the United Kingdom, issued a statement soon after Pompeo’s statement saying that they all ‘fully supported’ the decision to withdraw.

Soon after, President Vladimir Putin announced that Russia had also suspended its obligations under the INF, saying “we will do as follows: we will come up with a tit-for-tat response. Our American partners have announced the suspension of their participation… so we will suspend as well.” Sergei Lavrov, Russia’s Foreign Minister, was ordered not to begin any new INF talks with the United States, and has said that the defence ministry will begin to develop new missiles in the near future. Lavrov stated that he believes the US suspension of the INF will jeopardise other nuclear arms pacts, including the Nonproliferation of Nuclear Weapons Treaty (NPT) and the New START pact.

– A Russian woman was found guilty of incitement to murder and dismemberment on February 5th. Natalya Baksheyeva, 43, was a suspect in the high-profile “Krasnodar cannibals” case, along with her husband Dmitry. Baksheyeva was accused of urging her husband to kill a woman in 2017; he is currently suffering from tuberculosis and will be tried at a later date. Body parts were found at their home, along with selfies of the couple next to dismembered body parts.

On February 11th, Novaya Zemlya (‘The New Land’), a sparsely populated archipelago in Northern Russia, has declared a state of emergency over the appearance of dozens of polar bears in populated areas. Hunting polar bears is illegal in Russia, where the species is classified as endangered. The bears have started to ignore the signals and patrols used to warn them off, and the effect of climate change has meant that they are forced to change their hunting habits, often spending more time on land than on the ice. The appearance of the bears has disrupted local life, with parents afraid to take their children to school, and others refusing to leave their homes. Unless a solution is found soon, local administration head, Vigansha Musin, has said, a cull could be the only way to stop the bears

– On February 14th, investigative website Bellingcat identified a third agent responsible for the Salisbury poisoning, previously thought to have been committed by only two men. Bellingcat, which had also uncovered the identities of the first two agents, identified the third as Denis Sergeyev.

According to their investigation, Sergeyev had also been in Bulgaria in 2015 when a businessman and his family and a company director fell into a coma; now, British investigators are on the ground in Bulgaria to see if there is a link between the two cases.

On the 17th of February, the Russian flag was hung from scaffolding on the Salisbury Cathedral by a prankster, just before the anniversary of the Skripal’s attack; the prank was categorically condemned by the local community.

On February 18th, Andrew McCabe, former acting director of the FBI, claimed that Donald Trump had dismissed advice from the CIA and other US security services over North Korea, saying “I don’t care. I believe Putin.” In an interview with the American TV show 60 Minutes, McCabe said: “[In a meeting about North Korean weapons] The president launched into several unrelated diatribes. One of those was commenting on the recent missile launches by the government of North Korea. And, essentially, the president said he did not believe that the North Koreans had the capability to hit us here with ballistic missiles in the United States. And he did not believe that because President Putin had told him they did not. President Putin had told him that the North Koreans don’t actually have those missiles”. When officials replied that this was inconsistent with their intelligence, the president then replied “I don’t care. I believe Putin.”

McCabe also stated that there was good reason to open a counter investigation into the president after his firing of James Comey; Comey had just opened an investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 election. McCabe said: “the idea is, if the president committed obstruction of justice, fired the director of the of the FBI to negatively impact or to shut down our investigation of Russia’s malign activity and possibly in support of his campaign, as a counterintelligence investigator you have to ask yourself, ‘Why would a president of the United States do that?’”.

On February 20th, Vladimir Putin said in his State-of-Nation speech that Russia would begin to develop new weapons and aim them at ‘centres of decision-making’ in the West if new short and medium-range weapons are deployed in Europe and America. This comes shortly after both the U.S. and Russia suspended observation of the INF Treaty, as noted above.

Putin’s speech was mostly focussed on the economy. With approval ratings the lowest they have ever been in his twenty-year tenure, Putin first promised domestic changes, including more subsidies for ill and disabled children, an increase in pension payments, and new hospitals. He also promised to write off 450,000 rubles (Around $7000) for families that had three or more children.

Main sources: BBC (EN/RUS), RFE/RL (EN), The Guardian (EN)

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