LIVE UPDATES: The public inquiry into the assassination by radioactive polonium of former FSB agent Alexander Litvinenko in London has been published.
Welcome to our column, Russia Update, where we will be closely following day-to-day developments in Russia, including the Russian government’s foreign and domestic policies.
The previous issue is here.
–The Non-Hybrid War
–Kashin Explains His âLetter to Leadersâ on âFontanka Officeâ
–TV Rain Interviews Volunteer Fighter Back from Donbass
–âI Was on Active Dutyâ: Interview with Captured GRU Officer Aleksandrov
Suleyman is the relative of Ruslan Geremeyev, head of the Sever Battalion, the elite unite of the Chechen Interior Ministry’s troops in which Zaur Dadayev, the chief suspect of the murder, and the other suspects served. The independent media as well as friends and family of Nemtsov repeatedly pointed out the necessity of interrogating and even arresting Geremeyev, who traveled to Moscow with Dadayev shortly before the murder last February, but in fact Moscow law-enforcers never seemed able to overcome the objections of Chechen officials — and then Geremeyev fled Russia. Geremeyev’s driver, Ruslan Mukhutdinov, who also escaped, was placed on a Russian international wanted list.
By “brother,” Kadyrov means “cousin,” as Russians use this term not just for immediate family members but more distant relatives.
It happened to be Geremeyev’s birthday yesterday. Kadyrov wrote (translation by The Interpreter):
From the very beginning, he became a faithful comrade-at-arms of the First President of the Chechen Republic, Hero of Russia Akhmat-Khadzhi Kadyrov, and never hesitated on the chosen path, and did everything that was in his power to help and support Akhmat-Khadzhi. At a time when others were still taking a wait-and-see position, doubting in the capabilities of the Kadyrov team, Suleyman Sadulayevich stated that he and his brothers were always together with Akhmat-Khadzi. Geremeyev has always assisted in the resolving of issues, which he brought to Moscow. He essentially acted as an aide to the president of the Chechen Republic. In these years, serious changes have taken place, Chechnya has changed to be unrecognizable. But today he displays principled position, a state approach to defending the interests of the republic in the Federation Council. I congratulate Suleyman Sadulayevich, and wish him strong health, happiness and prosperity!
In other words, Geremeyev is Kadyrov’s lieutenant, taking care of assignments given him to perform in Moscow as an influential member of parliament — a position which gives him immunity from prosecution.
Since Kadyrov made his latest threats to the opposition, and there have been a number of responses, Kadyrov has only doubled down, orchestrating “flash mobs” of dutiful government employees to stage demonstrations with posters bearing various alarming slogans.
Translation: Cover of the fresh issue of the Moscow Times.
Kadyrov and his supporters made use of social media as much as their critics.
A hashtag campaign was started on Twitter with various pro-Kremlin figures carrying posters saying “Kadyrov is a patriot of Russia.”
Novaya Gazeta reported that United Russia, the ruling party also showed solidarity with Kadyrov by having Sergei Neverov, secretary of the party’s general council; Vladimir Vasilyev, head of the United Russia faction in the State Duma; and Irina Yarovaya, head of the Duma committee on security post a photograph with the slogan.
Translation: Stars, military and foreigners in the flashmob.
Patriotic singers Fyodor Bondarchuk and singer Nikolai Baskoy also posted photos of themselves with the slogans, as did various Chechen state employees. Komsomolskaya Pravda also posted mash-ups making it appear as if President Barack Obama, Sylvester Stallone and other celebrities were carrying the same posters.
Perhaps the campaign was going too far, as yesterday, presidential administration spokesman Dmitry Peskov tried to downplay Kadyrov’s campaigns, saying:
“Nothing should be whipped up, you must simply read what is said calmly. The president is in constant dialogue both with the dominant political force and with opposition parties. But if we speak of those who, invoking political activity, speak of the readiness to deliberately go outside the framework of the law, then they at a minimum are not fostering stability and the prosperity of our state.”
Ilya Yashin, deputy chairman of the Parnas opposition party, said he planned to release a report on Kadyrov on February 23 on the eve of the one-year anniversary of the murder of his close associate, Boris Nemtsov, RFE/RL’s Russian-language service Svoboda reported, citing Vedomosti.
Translation: opposition member Ilya Yashin announced the publication of a report on Ramzan Kadyrov.
The report covers Kadyrov’s career since the days when he fought the Russian government with Chechen rebels in the 1990s, then switched sides to become loyal to Moscow. The authors outline allegations of political murders which Kadyrov may be involved. The report concludes that the establishment of Kadyrov’s regime threatens the political system of Russia itself.
Amnesty International issued a statement in Russian calling on Russia’s federal authorities to “react” to the “barely-veiled threats” aimed at prominent journalists, human rights advocates and opposition politicians coming from Kadyrov.
Amnesty said such threats had to be taken seriously, given the history of the murders of journalist Anna Politkovskaya and human rights activist Natalya Estemirova and others.
But two of the associates of the defendants said to be the organizers of the murder — Ruslan Geremeyev, leader of the Sever Battalion and his driver, Ruslan Mukhatudinov — have slipped away, and this is in fact Bastrykin’s fault, because he refused — or was unable — to pursue them and interrogate and arrest them in the Chechen Republic, and they fled the country.
“Bastrykin is either not informed of what is going on, or is deliberately leading people astray. Any criminal expert will tell you that no crime, especially a contract murder, can be considered solved before the contractors and organizers of the murder are established and their motives learned. Neither the contractors or the organizers nor their motives are in the case to date.”
“There is the investigation, the indictment, the defense, and the trial. It is the court that must give consent to whether or not [the murder of Nemtsov] is solved. This does not enter into the prerogative of the Kremlin.”
“Several times, Bastrykin did not sign the order for the charging of Ruslan Geremeyev in absentia. This is what sources I trust say.”
Authorities continue to remove the unofficial memorial of flowers and pictures placed at the scene of Nemtsov’s murder on the Bolshoi Moskvoretsky Bridge.
Translation: Once again, the memorial at the site of the murder of Nemtsov has been destroyed.
— Catherine A. Fitzpatrick
As we reported earlier, “collapse” is not a word that Russian leaders want to use, but it is one that the Russian independent media is using.
Yesterday, Putin joked at a Russian forum on small business that Russian officials couldn’t afford to go to Davos and were staying home where they belonged.
The ruble is currently trading at 83.11, after reaching 85 this morning.
Micael Bydén, supreme commander of the Swedish Armed Forces, told the defence committee today that the Russian jets following the Saab ASC 890 aircraft broke off after two Gripen jet fighters were dispatched to intercept them.
The incident occurred in the southern Baltic, near the Danish island of Bornholm.
According to the report, the foreign aircraft usually observe each others flight routes before moving on, however in this case the Russian fighters continued to chase the Swedish flight.
Allan Widman, chairman of the defence committee, said that it was “not an everyday incident.”
This is only the latest in a series of worrying encounters between Swedish and Russian military aircraft.
The rate of the ruble to the US dollar fell to yet another historic low today as it is trading at 85 to a dollar, 91 to a euro, Gazeta.ru reported; the lowest before the current period was on December 16, 2014, so this means this the worst exchange rate since since the crisis of 1998. Currently the ruble is trading at 84.30 to the dollar and 91.86 to the euro, with Brent crude at $27.68, zenrus.ru reported.
The Central Bank raised the official rate by over 4 rubles to 83.59 for the dollar and 91.18 for the euro, Vedomosti reported.
Translation: Kostin: The dollar at 60 rubles is hardly likely.
He further noted (translation by The Interpreter):
“I don’t expect a significant rallying of the ruble, although with the drop in oil prices some correlative rise is possible.
But it will never return to the level of 60 rubles (to the dollar).”
He didn’t see signs of a currency shock despite the 4% drop today.
“There is no currency shock, we don’t see behavior by clients out of the ordinary, he told journalists. In his opinion, the current level of the key rate of 11% is adquate for the economic conditions.
“It’s possible that that there will be a weakening of the Central Bank from the perspective of the normatives, I don’t think that the support of capital and liquidity is needed, said Kudrin, answering a question regarding whether the support of the banking sector was needed.
Presidential administration spokesman Dmitry Peskov said:
“I wouldn’t use the word ‘collapse.’ The rate is really changing, the rate is volatile, but that is far from a collapse.”
He said the Central Bank has developed several scenarios which will help to avoid a real collapse.
Sixty percent of Russians polled by Nielsen said they were refraining from buying new clothes due to the economic crisis, RBC.ru reported. And 71% said they were making compromises of some kind in their budget, whether deciding not to travel or to buy less food
Russian social media has been full of commentary on the ruble crash, a lot of it sardonic.
Translation: I saw the rate of foreign currency.
This Coub (a Russian version of a Gif) is popular; it shows a cartoon cat smashing a puzzle of a fish.
Translation: The Ministry of Finance is saving Russia’s economy.
Cat: “Once again, nothing works! And that’s how it works, too… Well, please, I don’t need it!.”
In this Coub, a clip from the movie Liar, Liar starring American actor Jim Carey showing incredulity is mashed up with an interview with Patriarch Kirill, who solemnly proclaims, “We are not talking about the value of the ruble; we are talking about a change in the exchange rate of the ruble.”
Gazeta.ru reported that lines were forming at a number of currency exchange booths in Moscow, and some experts were starting to use the word “panic.”
“The panic factor is clearly operating,” said Ilya Prilepsky, head of International Economy at the Economic Expert Group.
The British home secretary, Theresa May, has made a statement and fielded questions in the House of Commons on the the subject of today’s report from the Litvinenko Inquiry.
May’s announced response is, so far at least, rather subdued.
The home secretary told the Commons that UK assets belonging to Andrei Lugovoi and Dmitry Kovtun, the two former FSB officers who poisoned Litvinenko in 2006, have now been frozen. Furthermore, in response to reports that the two have since travelled outside Russia, May said that the UK was working to ensure that other EU states and allied nations would comply with extradition for the suspects should they enter their territory.
Further responses may come as May said that she had written to the director of public prosecutions to seek their recommendations.
May repeatedly rejected calls from MPs from not only the opposition Labour and Scottish Nationalist parties, but also her own Conservatives, for the introduction of new legislation akin to the US Magnitsky act.
She claimed that the introduction of a Magnitsky-style law would in fact reduce the likelihood that Lugovoi and Kovtun could be arrested after travelling abroad. Notably, while she referred to the murder as a “state-sponsored” act, she did not discuss the implications of any Magnitsky-style legislation for other Russian officials.
Nikolai Patrushev, the director of the FSB at the time of Litvinenko’s murder, who has been identified as having “probably” ordered the killing by Sir Robert Owen’s report, is May said, already on EU sanctions lists introduced after the Russian invasion of Crimea.
May was hesitant to discuss any further economic sanctions, suggesting that those already in place in response to Ukraine, were already effective.
She also dodged questions from MPs on the subject of tackling Russian money laundering in the UK, especially in the form of property ownership in London, and the use of tax havens.
The Russian ambassador will be summoned to the Foreign Office and the prime minister, David Cameron, will raise the subject of today’s finding with President Vladimir Putin “at the next available opportunity.”
Interestingly, May said that there was “one recommendation in the closed section of the [Litvinenko Inquiry] report” which the government would consider but could not disclose in public at the moment.
While many MPs called for wider action against the Russian state, May, who even acknowledged that Sir Robert’s findings were “not a surprise,” concentrated her response on the pursuit of Lugovoi and Kovtun, failing to tackle the state responsibility established in the report.
From the conclusion to today’s report:
9.198 Since 2006 President Putin has supported and protected Mr Lugovoy, notwithstanding the fact that Mr Lugovoy has been publicly accused of killing Mr Litvinenko. During the course of the Inquiry hearings, President Putin awarded Mr Lugovoy an honour for services to the fatherland. Whilst it does not follow that Mr Lugovoy must have been acting on behalf of the Russian State when he killed Mr Litvinenko, the way in which President Putin has treated Mr Lugovoy is certainly consistent with that hypothesis. Moreover, President Putin’s conduct towards Mr Lugovoy suggests a level of approval for the killing of Mr Litvinenko.
9.199 In my judgement, these matters amount to strong circumstantial evidence of Russian State responsibility for the killing of Mr Litvinenko. Having additionally taken into account the closed evidence, my findings are as follows.
9.200 When Mr Lugovoy poisoned Mr Litvinenko (as I have found that he did), it is probable that he did so under the direction of the FSB. I would add that I regard that as a strong probability. I have found that Mr Kovtun also took part in the poisoning; I conclude therefore that he was also acting under FSB direction, possibly indirectly through Mr Lugovoy but probably to his knowledge.
Considering this, May’s response Labour’s shadow home secretary, Andy Burnham, and the Conservative MP David Davis, who both called for wide-reaching financial responses beyond the scope of the two poisoners, and the expulsion of all Russian intelligence officers from the UK, seems weak.
Burnham said that “justice, not diplomacy, should decide the government’s response.” However May maintained that there were certain areas on which the UK must, “guardedly” work with Russia, most notably on “defeating Daesh.”
The one MP to support this position was the chairman of the Commons Select Committee on Foreign Affairs, Crispin Blunt, who suggested that as the government had already long suspected the Russian state’s involvement in the murder, the announcement today should not affect relations with the Kremlin. Blunt has previously called for greater cooperation not only with Russia but Bashar al-Assad in the fight against ISIS.
To observers of Russia’s actions in Syria, this is clearly a distant hope given that Russia is concentrating offensive operations not against ISIS, but the Syrian opposition to the Assad regime. Furthermore, the removal of moderate opposition groups while leaving ISIS intact only bolsters the growth of Sunni jihadism in Syria, given that the alternatives are being squeezed out.
The BBC’s Norman Smith summarised the debate, concluding that “diplomatic necessity seems to have trumped justice.”
What I found striking listening to the debate was the torrent of criticism Theresa May faced from all sides of the house.
I hardly heard a single MP speak in support of the very limited response of the government.
President Putin was described as a KGB thug and gangster, someone who presides over a rogue state, who uses assassination as government policy.
There have been warnings from some MPs that the UK government response will be seen as a sign of weakness – and there were calls for measures including travel bans and sanctions.
Mrs May said that she is taking action, but I think the view is that the action being taken so far is very, very limited.
A very circumscribed and cautious response. The reason for that, bluntly, is Syria. The so-called Islamic State is seen as a threat to the UK, and Russia is an ally in fighting them.
— Pierre Vaux
Andrei Lugovoi, one of the two Russian men found by today’s report to have poisoned Alexander Litvinenko, has told Interfax that the accusations against him are “absurd.”
Lugovoi, who was elected to the State Duma as a member of the far-right Liberal Democratic Party of Russia after the murder of Litvinenko, said:
“The charges against me are absurd. As we had expected, there was no bombshell! Today’s read-outs of the results of the investigation once again confirm the anti-Russian position of London, their tunnel-vision and unwillingness to establish the true cause of Litvinenko’s death.”
Lugovoi claimed that the Inquiry was a convenient means for British politicians to attack Russia:
“The events of 2014 in Ukraine, beginning after this anti-Russian hysteria and coinciding with the resumption of the investigation into the ‘Litvinenko case,’ despite the prior classification of information, appears to me to be a pathetic attempt by London to use a ‘skeleton in the closet’ for their own political ambitions. I hope that this ‘polonium trial’ will unmask the myth of the impartiality of British justice.”
Maria Zakharova, spokesperson for the Russian Foreign Ministry, trod a similar path when she said that, while the government had yet to review the report, the Litvinenko Inquiry had followed the course of a “predetermined” and politically expedient course.
— Pierre Vaux
The full report of the Litvinenko Inquiry is now available to read as a PDF file here.
Nico Hines reports for The Daily Beast:
Alexander Litvinenko Was Killed 'For Calling Putin a Pedophile'
A prominent Russian dissident was assassinated in London with a deadly dose of radioactive poison because he had claimed that President Putin was a pedophile, according to an independent British inquiry.
The British public inquiry into the assassination of Alexander Litvinenko, headed by Sir Robert Owen, has published its report.
Reports from the Royal Courts of Justice:
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