Russia Monthly Digest: a new Internet law forbids disrespect, a potential nuclear arms crisis and Russia rounds up undercover agents4 min read
– On March 4th, Russian ambassador to the US Anatoly Antonov warned that arms control was “in crisis” and claimed that “some politicians and generals in Washington” were beginning to think about nuclear war. Both countries have suspended observation of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, which had once been an important part of cooperation on de-escalation, and which is due to expire in August. Only one nuclear arms restraint remains between the two countries: 2010’s New Start Treaty, which lasts until 2021, unless renewed by both parties. Although Russia has signalled its intention to renew the treaty, the US has not yet come to a definitive conclusion, and President Trump has spoken against it. Antonov issued the reminder that “it is impossible to win a nuclear war”.
He also said that if treaties collapse between Russia and the US, whose armed forces control 90 percent of the world’s nuclear weapons, then the global proliferation of nuclear weapons would increase.
– On the same day, US State Department Officials stated that the 2018 Salisbury poisoning of Russian double agent Sergey Skripal and his daughter, Yulia, demonstrated that Russia is continuing to stockpile, manufacture and research chemical weapons, in what would be a major breach of the 1991 Chemical Weapons Convention if true. The international watchdog for chemical weapons, the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) declared in September 2017 that Russia had successfully destroyed its remaining chemical weapons. However, diplomats from the US, UK, and other countries say that the Skripal poisoning shows that Russia has cheated the convention by destroying only its “declared” chemical weapons stockpile. Novichok, the Soviet-era nerve agent that was used to poison Skripal, was of relatively recent production, and exposes Russia’s ‘hidden stock’, according to Western officials. The Skripal case led many countries, including the US, to implement sanctions on Russia.
– On March 6th, Russian parliament approved a law that forbids ‘indecent’ posts online that show a “blatant disrespect for society, the country, Russia’s official state symbols, the constitution, or the authorities”. Breaking the new law carries a fine of up to 100,000 roubles (about 1,550 USD) or jail time of up to fifteen days for repeat offenders. Alexander Verkhovsky, head of the Sova Centre, a Moscow-based initiative that monitors anti-extremism legislation, said that the new legislation could mean that comments like “Putin is a bastard” or any jokes about parliament could result in a breach of the law.
A separate piece of legislation aimed at blocking “disrespectful and fake news” outlets was also passed. Critics of the laws compare it to Soviet-era laws used to target dissidents: “this barbaric legislation will make journalists fearful of speaking and writing”, said Nikolai Svanidze, a journalist and member of Russia’s civic chamber. On March 10th, thousands of people took to the streets in Moscow, Voronezh, and Khabarovsk to protest the law, and a few unauthorised protesters did the same in St. Petersburg; however, it is expected that Putin will sign the law into force in the next few weeks.
– President Putin told reporters on the same day that Russia had foiled over six-hundred agents of foreign special forces. Although he did not go into detail, Putin praised the efforts of the FSB, the country’s federal security agency, in protecting data in the development of weapons systems, and warned that “we see foreign intelligence agencies trying to increase their activity towards Russia, seeking by all means to access political, economic, scientific and technological information”.
The Dutch, Swedish and Czech intelligence services also said that they had foiled multiple Russian engagements, including an attempt by Russian spies to hack into the global weapons watchdog OPCW. President of the European Council, Donald Tusk, although not specifically accusing Russia, has warned that “anti-European forces” might try to meddle in European elections in May.
– On March 18th, then-Prime Minister of Ukraine Yulia Tymoshenko (and current presidential candidate), defended her support Kyiv’s decision not to use military resistance to Russia’s invasion, saying that “we knew from foreign intelligence sources [that the] Kremlin was waiting for just one killed Crimean or one killed servicemen from the Black Sea Fleet to let loose Russian forces all along Ukraine’s border… I have expressed my position that if [Russia] had managed to provoke [aggressive] actions from us, they would have occupied two-thirds of Ukraine and we would have hundreds of thousands of people dead today.” Tymoshenko advocates for resolving the conflict with Russia via a 1994 ruling called the Budapest Memorandum, which was signed by Russia, Ukraine, America and Britain. The decree guarantees Ukraine security, which at the time was exchanged for Soviet-era nuclear weapons.