Russia Update: Poland Expels Reporter for Espionage

April 29, 2015
Russian mission control center in Korolyov. Russia has not been able to make contact with the Progress spacecraft carrying supplies for the International Space Station. Photo by Sergei Mamontov

Poland has ruled to expel an correspondent from Russia accused of espionage.

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.


Russia This Week:

What Happened to the Slow-Moving Coup?
Can We Be Satisfied with the Theory That Kadyrov Killed Nemtsov?
All the Strange Things Going On in Moscow
Remembering Boris Nemtsov, Insider and Outsider (1959-2015)

Special features:

Alexey Navalny On the Murder of Boris Nemtsov
Theories about Possible Perpetrators of the Murder of Boris Nemtsov
Novaya Gazeta Releases Sensational Kremlin Memo

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Criminal Case Reportedly Opened Against Russian MP Ilya Ponomarev

A criminal case has been opened up against Ilya Ponomarev, the Russian member of parliament who was the lone voter against the annexation of the Crimea, reports, citing Interfax and a source familiar with the situation.

As we reported earlier this month, he was stripped of his parliamentary immunity to make this possible.

The case has been opened up under Art. 33, part 5 and Art. 160 part 4 (“complicity in misappropriation of funds”). The charges stem from a claim that lecture fees paid to Ponomarev on a consulting contract with the Skolkovo Foundation were excessive. (For a detailed account of the case, see our previous post.)

There is no official notice yet about the case on the Investigative Committee’s website.

Ponomarev, the former head of the Committee on Innovation in the State Duma or parliament is currently in the US on the West Coast, where he has been pursuing projects with Silicon Valley contacts. Recently he joined other recent Russian exiles to form the Free Russia Foundation which is coordinating efforts to develop a “strategic vision of Russia ‘After Putin'”

— Catherine A. Fitzpatrick

US International Rescue Committee Expelled from ‘Donetsk People’s Republic for ‘Espionage’
LifeNews, a pro-Kremlin TV station which cooperates close with law-enforcement and intelligence (as we recently re-confirmed), reports that
the minister of state security of the self-proclaimed “Donetsk People’s
Republic” (DNR) has expelled seven staff members of the International
Rescue Committee (IRC) supposedly for “espionage”.

A DNR official told LifeNews (translation by The Interpreter):

“They state that they are providing help to women and girls suffering from any forms of violence and suffering post-traumatic stress. However, this help is of an exclusively psychological nature, they have reduced the holding of group sessions, individual consultations, interest groups, master classes and so on down to questions about the attitudes to and relations with the DNR authorities.”

Mariya Petrova, a spokeswoman for the ministry of security (MGB) admitted to LifeNews on camera that the way the they knew about these activities is that they planted unannounced security agents in the workshops.

She said that a large number of completed questionnaires by DNR residents were found in the IRC office.


DNR militant in the IRC office in Donetsk. The LifeNews subtitle says Charges of Espionage: DNR Minister of State Security Deported Employees of UN Mission. In fact the IRC is not part of the UN Mission, but is a non-governmental organization with consultative status at the UN.

Another MGB spokesman claimed that the foreign relief workers “actively establish contacts with officials of DNR ministries and agencies” and that “special devices for audio surveillance” were found in the office.

In late February and early March, six IRC workers and field manager Bryce Perry came to work in the area of the line of contact with the Ukrainian army. The DNR believes that instead of providing humanitarian relief, they gathered information about the Russian-backed militant forces. Perry denied the charges saying in fact officials led them to the line of contact:

“We were supposed to begin our work, and begin to open our aid program. The local administration gave us lists of the most needy residents and we began to work in this area. We also talked to people and determined which regions most needed our help, and it turn out that most of all, it was in these regions.”

But after inspecting the group, the ministry of security decided to expel them. They were taken to a checkpoint in the direction of Zaporozhe and put on a bus to Kiev.

The IRC is a non-government world-wide humanitarian organization founded in 1933 that operates in 40 countries, notably in the current crises in Nepal and Yemen. The current CEO is David Milliband, the former British Labor Party leader and member of parliament.

The group has not made any statement yet about its expulsion. In the past, it has been expelled from other countries with authoritarian governments, such as Sudan.

Last week, IRC had a press release featuring the coverage in the New York Times for their work in an article on April 23 titled “A Population Uprooted by Ukraine’s War Struggles to Get By” addressing the crisis of 1.2 million displaced people.

“The end of hostilities is not the end of this story,” said Bryce Perry, a field director for the International Rescue Committee working in Ukraine. “It’s really the beginning of a humanitarian crisis that the world needs to wake up and respond to.”

The article was accompanied by a video describing the ordeals of some of the women displaced.

— Catherine A. Fitzpatrick

The Russian Economy Plummets, But Putin Denies It’s a Crisis

Last week, The Moscow Times commented on a report released by the Russian state statistics agency which clearly documented the extent of the problems in Russia’s economy:

Russia’s trade turnover with the outside world plunged 30.1 percent year-on-year in the first two months of 2015 as oil price falls, currency devaluation and tit-for-tat sanctions shook the Russian economy.  

The value of Russia’s international trade fell to $83.3 billion over January and February, according to data published by the Rosstat state statistics agency Monday.

Total imports plummeted $25.7 billion, a fall of 37.6 percent compared to the same period last year, while exports plunged 23.8 percent to $57.6 billion, the data showed. This left Russia with a trade surplus of $31.9 billion — roughly the same amount as in the first two months of 2014.

According to the data, trade between Russia and the European Union fell by 34.3 percent to $38.2 billion. Among the hardest hit were Poland, whose trade with Russia slumped 48.9 percent, Britain, which saw trade shrink 51.9 percent, and France, where trade was down 42.6 percent year-on-year.

[Interestingly, trade with the U.S. only dropped by 6.4%, and Japan was the only country outside of the former USSR which saw trade with Russia grow].

Russian Trade With the World Falls 30% as Economic Crisis Deepens | Business

Denis Abramov / Vedomosti The price of oil, Russia's main export, has fallen 45 percent since highs of $115 per barrel last summer. Russia's trade turnover with the outside world plunged 30.1 percent year-on-year in the first two months of 2015 as oil price falls, currency devaluation and tit-for-tat sanctions shook the Russian economy.

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Apr 29, 2015 21:03 (GMT)

Today the World Bank has warned that there are significant problems in Ukraine as well as a result of their economic problems which preceded the Euromaidan Revolution, and a result of the war with Russia and its proxies. The Telegraph reports:

The Washington-based organisation cut its 2015 growth forecast to -7.5pc, following a contraction of 6.8pc in 2014. Last October, it forecast that the Ukrainian economy would shrink by 1pc this year, while the International Monetary Fund has forecast a contraction of 5.5pc this year.

“Given the situation in the east, we expect gross domestic product (GDP) to continue contracting sharply especially during the first half of the year,” the World Bank said in its latest healthcheck of the economy.

Ukraine’s recession is predicted to end in 2016. 
And Russia’s economy may actually be shrinking faster than Ukraine’s. Last week, Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev said that Russia’s economy shrank 2% in the first quarter, and the official numbers coming out of Russia are likely optimistic. AFP reports:

[Medvedev] also predicted that inflation over 2015 would slow to less than 11 percent, after previously forecasting between 11 and 12 percent.

According to official statistics, in March foreign trade was down more than 26 percent, while real wages fell 9.3 percent and inflation picked up by 16.9 percent compared with the same period last year.

Russia’s central bank predicted the economy could shrink by as much as four percent in 2015 if oil remains around $50 per barrel.

The crunch has forced the government to dip heavily into its reserves and publicly ponder the sensitive issue of raising the retirement age for the first time since the 1930s.

Meanwhile, Russian energy giant Gazprom, the world’s most profitable company from 2009 to 2011, is hemorrhaging money:

BNE reports:

Net profits at Russian state energy group Gazprom plummeted 86% in 2014 as the world’s largest producer of natural gas reeled under a 50% ruble devaluation, the breakdown in relations with key transit land Ukraine and its main consumers in the European Union, as well as a 50% drop in oil prices. Net income for 2014 was just RUB159bn ($3.1bn), compared with RUB1.1 trillion in 2013, Gazprom announced on April 29.

The collapse stemmed directly from the ruble’s plunge, which causing crippling foreign exchange losses as Gazprom was forced to revalue its foreign currency debt. As a result, its foreign exchange losses were RUB926bn more in 2014 than in 2013.

Gazprom also made writedowns on receivables from Ukraine’s state energy company Naftogaz, along with a slew of oil and electricity assets. Operating profits fell 17% to RUB 1.3bn as a result.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, however, says Russia’s economic situation is not a crisis, and the worst is behind them. The Russian state propaganda outlet RT reports:

“The fundamentals of the Russian economy have strengthened and the stability cannot be destroyed completely,” Putin said Tuesday at the All-Russian Popular Front media conference in St. Petersburg. He added that overcoming the difficulties of 2014 was one of the greatest achievements in recent years.

Speaking about the events the Russian economy faced at the end of last year, such as the oil crisis, Western sanctions and a steep fall in ruble exchange rate, Putin said they were certain complexities that he wouldn’t even call a crisis. However, they left a mark in the country’s economic outlook.

“This does not mean that everything will start flourishing instantly. Maybe we’ll even feel the aftershock of the end of last year,” Putin said. “However, it’s already clear that there is no collapse and none is expected,” he added.

James Miller

Former World Leaders ‘The Elders’ Visit Putin and Other Russian Leaders for Quiet Talks on War in Ukraine, World Issues
A group of former world leaders called “The Elders” is visiting Moscow
today and has met with Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and President
Vladimir Putin, Russian and Western correspondents in Moscow reported.
Translation: Three former and one current president have gathered in Novo-Ogaryovo.

The private group includes former US President Jimmy Carter, former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, former Finnish President Martti Ahtisaari, the first woman Prime Minister of Norway Gro Harlem Brundtland, former foreign minister of Algeria and UN conflict mediator Lakhdar Brahimi, and former Mexican President Ernesto Zedillo.

In a press release on their web site, The Elders said merely that it was their first trip to Russia and that they had planned ” a series of private meetings with Russian officials, dignitaries and academics” in order to promote peace, justice and human rights worldwide.”

It is not know whether the group  met with any members of the Russian opposition or independent human rights advocates.

While the press release says nothing about the war in Ukraine, the group has commented on the conflict at least once in the past in a statement from Kofi Annan last year:

tug of war in Ukraine is growing ever more dangerous for the people of
Ukraine, for regional stability and for the parties who can influence
the crisis. We urge Russia, the United States, and the European Union to
make common cause and work together to stabilise Ukraine.

“Ukraine’s territorial integrity must be preserved. An unstable and
fragmented Ukraine is not in the interest of Russia nor the West and
certainly not the people of Ukraine.”

The Ukrainian Today TV station covered the meeting but didn’t have any word on what was discussed about the war in Ukraine.

The trip is reminiscent of many such sojourns in the 1980s after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and deployment of SS20 missiles in Europe, when some Western peace groups believed that rather than confront the Kremlin with its aggressive actions publicly, it would mediate what they saw as “misunderstandings” and “stereotypes” between East and West, casting them as equally to blame for conflicts.

But the “quiet diplomacy” format of the meeting means that in principle, the figures could ask Putin and other officials about issues like the Russian invasion of Ukraine and unraveling of the Minsk-2 peace accords, and the assassination of Boris Nemtsov, who was preparing a report on the Russian military presence in Ukraine before he was killed.

Translation: Putin: to The Elders: Since you have ceased to be active leaders the world has not become a simpler place.

The Russian International Affairs Council is a non-profit organization affiliated with the Russian Academy of Sciences which generally hews to the official Kremlin line, as can be seen from a recent article on the incident in Norway where despite EU sanctions against him over his role in the war in Ukraine, Vice Premier Dmitry Rogozin landed on the Norwegian territory of Svalberg.

The terse communique on the meeting with The Elders does indicate that Ukraine was discussed:

“Issues discussed at the meeting included how to resolve the Ukraine
crisis, strategic stability and development in the Central Asian region,
prospects for Russian-Chinese relations, the process of transformation
in the Middle East, and restoring the manageability of the international
political system. The foreign guests were also interested in the
current socio-economic and political situation in Russia, and possible
areas of strategy for modernising the country in the short and medium

— Catherine A. Fitzpatrick

Russian Spacecraft Progress in ‘Unplanned Orbit’ and Expected to Crash
The Russian spacecraft Progress M-27M has begun to spiral out of control
and the Russian Mission Control at Korolyov has given up efforts to
communicate with the ship, RIA Novosti reported.

Progress went into “unplanned orbit”  yesterday April 28 after it was
launched from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, a source in
Roskosmos, the Russian space agency told RIA Novosti. It will now be
unable to hook up with the International Space Station.

Authorities say that it is not possible yet to predict when and where the ship will crash (translation by The Interpreter):

there was a failure to ignite the motors and make a corrective
maneuver, the space freighter will gradually lose orbit. The speed of
the descent will vary depending on the state of the atmosphere and solar
wind, but on the whole, the ship has lost only a dozen meters of
elevation in these last days. Only a few hours before it happens will it
be possible to calculate the date and region where the pieces of the
Progress will land which have not burned up in the thick layers of the

None of the equipment on board the ship was critical, and the astronauts have plenty of provisions to survive, a NASA source told the Guardian.

Progress was carrying “1,940 pounds of propellant, 110 pounds of
oxygen, 926 pounds of water, and 3,128 pounds of spare parts, supplies
and scientific experiment hardware,” NASA said.

“Among the US supplies on board are spare parts for
the station’s environmental control and life support system, backup
spacewalk hardware, and crew clothing, all of which are replaceable.”

space agency said earlier this month that the ship would also carry a
copy of the Soviet Victory Banner: the flag three Red Army soldiers
raised over the Reichstag building in Berlin on 1 May 1945.

flag, which is the official symbol of Soviet victory over Nazi Germany
that Russia will commemorate on 9 May, was to be used by Russian
cosmonauts to send their greetings to the nation on that day.

The Daily Beast added:

In addition to cargo for the International Space
Station, Progress was carrying symbolic gifts: St. George’s ribbons and
other trinkets to commemorate 70 years since Russia’s victory over
Germany in World War II.

The unmanned spacecraft was insured for 2 billion rubles of $38
million, Nikolai Galushkin, first deputy head of SOGAZ, the Russian
insurance company, reported.

A Progress flight crashed in 2011, which was a significant setback for the Russian space program.

— Catherine A. Fitzpatrick
Polish Council Rules to Expel Russian Correspondent for Espionage
Poland has ruled to expel an correspondent, accusing him of espionage, PAP and Ukrinform reported.

Leonid Sviridov, a Russian citizen and freelancer for the Russian media company Russia Today was stripped of his residence permit in Poland by the Mazowieckie Voivodship or provincial council.

“After a detailed review of of the case, the Voivodship approved the appeal of Internal Security Agency (ABW),” a press secretary stated.

Sviridov has 30 days to appeal the decision to the Department of Foreigners’ Affairs in Poland.

Last October, the Polish Foreign Ministry cancelled the accreditation of Sviridov at the request of the ABW and ordered him to leave the country. At that time the ABW had no comment on the case, saying it was classified information.

Sources in Poland say that Sviridov’s case may be related to the detention of two other Russian citizens, a military officer and a lawyer.

Dmitry Kiselyov, general director of Rossiya Segodnya (Russia Today), the Russian media agency, said that Poland’s actions will “complicate the work of the media, and that contradicts the European principles of freedom of expression and dissemination of information.”

Translation: Poland has expelled a Russia Today propagandist suspected of espionage.

Translation: Poland has expelled a Russian journalist for suspicion of espionage.

— Catherine A. Fitzpatrick