Russia Monthly Digest: Turkey buys Russian weapons, and a director freed from house arrest4 min read
– On April 3rd, Turkey purchased a S-400 missile system from Russia in a move that angered fellow NATO members. In response, the United States suspended Turkey’s involvement in the F-35 fighter jet program, the largest and most expensive weapons program in the world.
Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, the President of Turkey, has seen his government increasingly clash with the West over issues such as domestic dissent and engagement in the Syrian War. However, Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu said that Turkey still backed NATO on most issues to do with Russia, such as the annexation of Crimea. “We have been working with Russia… but it doesn’t mean that we are undermining the [NATO] alliance and we [don’t] agree with Russia on everything. There is no shift in our foreign policy”, he said.
However, Mike Pence was more critical of Turkey’s purchase of the S-400: “Turkey must choose. Does it want to remain a critical partner in the most successful military alliance in history, or does it want to risk the security of that partnership by making such reckless decisions that undermine our alliance?”.
– On April 8th, Russian film and theatre director Kirill Serebrennikov was released from house arrest. Serebrennikov had been accused of embezzling from theatre fund Platforma to the tune of around $2 million, but his supporters say that the charges were politically motivated.
Serebrennikov said that he would celebrate his freedom, but only briefly: “I will celebrate now but return to work very soon. It’s not easy psychologically but there is so much to do. We have stagings and rehearsals.” The director had been under arrest since September, 2018, with his original trial taking place in November (read more in the November, 2018 edition of What’s Up Russia?). On the 15th of April, a Russian judge ordered a new study on evidence submitted by the prosecution, a move that Serebrennikov ‘s defence declared a ‘victory’, before a retrial on the 17th of June.
– On April 9th, the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) ruled that Russian authorities had held Alexey Navalny, leader of the opposition party Russia of the Future, under unlawful house arrest and violated his human rights in 2014. Navalny had been charged with embezzlement, an accusation his supporters said was politically motivated.
Writing on social media, Navalny called the ruling a “victory”: “I am sure this ruling will have important consequences for all those in Russia who are constantly subjected to this kind of lawlessness.” In 2018, the ECHR received over 11,700 requests for appeal from Russian citizens who believed that their human rights were being violated.
– On April 11th, Julian Assange, founder of Wikileaks, was arrested at the Ecuadorian Embassy in London, England. Accused of espionage, Assange and Wikileaks were responsible for leaking emails pertaining to the US 2016 election accumulated by Russian hackers. After his arrest, Russian officials said that they hoped his rights would be respected. Dimitry Peskov, a spokesman for the Kremlin, said “from our point of view, [Assange’s arrest] does not correspond to ideals of media freedom and integrity”. Foreign Ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova said that “the hand of ‘democracy’ squeezes the throat of freedom”. Senator Kostantin Kosachev, Chairman of the Federation Council’s Committee on Foreign Affairs, lambasted the UK: “[they] promised the president of Ecuador that Assange wouldn’t be extradited to a country with torture or the death penalty – but the U.S will use everything at its disposal to make an example out of him. That’s what will happen to everyone who dares to tell the truth about the dark affairs of the United States.”
On the same day, Russia passed a bill that would allow the Kremlin to control internet traffic from Russia to foreign servers, with an aim that the bill become law on November 1st. The bill was passed almost unanimously in the State Duma with 320 for and 15 against. The bill would make it compulsory for all foreign internet traffic to go through registered and official servers – it is described by the Kremlin as a measure to protect Russia from US cyber-attacks.
Agora, a Russian human rights group, has said that in the last year, Russia’s internet freedoms have fallen immensely, and that the bill would lessen these freedoms even further. Sergei Ivanov, a member of the Liberal-Democratic party in Russia said: “it’s a bill on digital slavery and the introduction of censorship for the web.”
– On April 12th, U.S Ambassador to Russia Jon Huntsman challenged Russian authorities to produce evidence against accused spy Paul Whelan or else release him. Whelan was arrested in December on espionage charges, as he allegedly possessed a memory stick containing Russian state secrets. Huntsman, speaking in an interview with RFE/RL, said: “if there was a case, I think the evidence would have been brought forward by now… so, for me, as the senior American official in Russia, I hope that he is released as quickly as possible… If there is no evidence, and the Russians have not shown that there is any evidence so far, then let’s move on. Let’s move on and quit playing these games”. Whelan is currently being held in pre-trial detention.