Russia Update: Moscow Security Firm Doubts US Claims Russian Hackers Infiltrated White House

April 8, 2015
White House. Photo by AP

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 Happening 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: ‘It is Seen as Correct to Initiate Annexation of Eastern Regions of Ukraine to Russia’

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A Very Happy Vladimir Putin Welcomes Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras in Moscow

Greece’s new Prime Minister, Alexis, Tsipras, met with Russian President Vladimir Putin today in Moscow, “raising eyebrows” in the West. Tsipras, who has uncomfortably close ties to Russia and ran on a platform which pushes back against both the European Union and NATO, is now viewed by many Western leaders as a loose cannon who could undermine the West’s resistance to Putin’s policies.

New York Times reports:

Mr. Tsipras, at the news conference following the meeting, reiterated his previous criticism of Western sanctions against Russia. “We have repeatedly declared our disagreement,” he said. “This is our point of view that we constantly express to our colleagues in the E.U. We don’t think that this is a fruitful decision. It’s practically an economic war.”

“It will lead to cold war relations between the West and Russia,” he added. “We are working with the E.U. in this direction in the framework of our capabilities, with the aim of promoting dialogue, diplomacy and understanding.”

Such public criticism is particularly sensitive for European leaders because the sanctions against Russia automatically expire on July 31, and a unanimous decision by the European Council is needed to extend them. So far, senior Western officials have generally said that there has not been sufficient progress in resolving the crisis in eastern Ukraine to warrant a rollback in sanctions.

The Kremlin’s press release highlighted a smiling Putin sitting next to a confident Tsipras:


The Kremlin press release:

Our talks with Prime Minister of Greece Alexis Tsipras took place in a business-like and friendly atmosphere.

We discussed in detail the key aspects of our bilateral cooperation and current international and regional issues. We gave particular attention to the question of expanding our trade and economic cooperation.

Our bilateral trade turnover came to $4.2 billion last year – a decrease of 40 percent. The anti-Russian sanctions, Russia’s response measures, and the drop in oil prices all contributed to this result. But we have agreed to make an effort to put our trade back on a growth track. We hope that the Russian-Greek Intergovernmental Commission’s renewed vigour will facilitate this work, as well as the implementation of the Joint Action Plan for 2015–2016, which we approved today. We agreed to pay more attention to investment cooperation. The figures in this area are still very modest for now.

Mr Tsipras and I discussed our cooperation in the energy sector. Russia is the biggest exporter of energy resources to the Greek market and satisfies two thirds of Greece’s natural gas demand.

Naturally, we also discussed prospects for carrying out the big infrastructure project that we have dubbed Turkish Stream. This key project would transport Russian natural gas via Turkey to the Balkans and perhaps to Italy and Central Europe. This new route would cover Europeans’ energy resource needs and enable Greece to become one of the continent’s main energy distribution centres, which would attract substantial investment in the Greek economy and create new jobs. Ultimately, of course, this is a matter for our economic organisations and the Greek Government’s sovereign decision.

Our countries have some good foundations in industrial cooperation too. Russian companies supply power machinery, transport and technical equipment to Greece. Our company Russian Railways is in talks on taking part in modernising the port of Thessaloniki.

While no specifics were agreed upon today, this is another sign that Greece may sabotage the rest of the European Union’s sanction regime when sanctions expire. Furthermore, the discussion about working to build the Turkish Stream pipeline is a sign that Greece will cooperate with the Kremlin’s plan to find new routes to transport gas to Europe — routes that do not involve Ukraine or the Baltics.

See our other articles about the ties between the new ruling party in Greece and various powerful Russians, including ultranationalist Aleksandr Dugin:

James Miller
Damage to Oryol Submarine ‘Not Significant’ Yet Criminal Investigation Opened up on Charges of ‘Significant” Damage.

The damage to the Oryol nuclear submarine in yesterday’s fire at the Zvezdochka ship-repair shop was “not significant,” said OSK (Unified Ship-Building Company), the owners of the submarine, Kommersant reported.


Kommersant reported that according to a source who spoke to TASS in an inter-agency task force investigating the incident, the cables of a demagnetizing system that lowered the magnetic and electromagnetic field  of the submarine were burnt; the soundproof layer of the main ballast tank and the pressure hull were damaged, and also the diving and surfacing system.

Yesterday afternoon Moscow time, fire broke out in some internal rubber insulation during welding of the 9th section. When fire extinguishers didn’t work, authorities decided to flood the dry dock where the submarine was undergoing repairs. (They did not sink the submarine, as some reports erroneously stated.)

As the sub was being remodeled in a repair shop, neither nuclear missiles nor fuel were loaded on the submarine, and the engine was not ignited. There has been no increase in radiation detected in the area.

Zvezdochka, the ship repair company, said that it will remain on schedule to ready the submarine by the deadline of the first quarter of 2016, as stated in the original contract.

The Arkhangelsk branch of the Investigative Committee has opened up a joint investigation with the local prosecutor’s office regarding “violation of safety regulations causing major damage,” Kommersant reported.

The criminal investigation seems out of step with the claims of “not significant” damage, and is typical of the punitive approach to these kinds of accidents. The prosecutor of Arkhangelsk Region said he had found “evidence of a crime.”

Igor Kudrin, chairman of the St. Petersburg Club of Submariners and Navy Fleet Veterans said such a serious approach is warranted (translation by The Interpreter):

Any fire on a submarine is an emergency which could have severe consequences. This is a K-266 submarine, one of these submarines already had a sad history — the Kursk submarine which sank in August 2000. Perhaps there really was welding work being done, the crew of the ship and the repair yard are responsible for safety. A special watch is being installed, everything is being provided, this seaman on watch is obliged to be present during the work and two hours after its completion.

— Catherine A. Fitzpatrick

Russian-Based Security Firm Kaspersky Labs Casts Doubts On US Claims That Russian Hackers Infiltrated White House

U.S. officials report that Russian hackers have penetrated both the State Department and the White House. CNN reports that sensitive details about President Obama’s non-public meetings were compromised, though the White House insists that, to their knowledge, no classified information has been compromised.

Reports of the attacks on the State Department date back to October, and U.S. officials have warned that the Russian government is implicated in the hack:

Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, in a speech at an FBI cyberconference in January, warned government officials and private businesses to teach employees what “spear phishing” looks like.

“So many times, the Chinese and others get access to our systems just by pretending to be someone else and then asking for access, and someone gives it to them,” Clapper said.

The ferocity of the Russian intrusions in recent months caught U.S. officials by surprise, leading to a reassessment of the cybersecurity threat as the U.S. and Russia increasingly confront each other over issues ranging from the Russian aggression in Ukraine to the U.S. military operations in Syria.

The attacks on the State and White House systems is one reason why Clapper told a Senate hearing in February that the “Russian cyberthreat is more severe than we have previously assessed.”

In October, The Washington Post reported that the hacks at the State Department were part of a wave of cyber-espionage attacks launched by hackers thought to be working for the Kremlin:

Recent reports by security firms have identified cyber-­espionage campaigns by Russian hackers thought to be working for the government. Targets have included NATO, the Ukrainian government and U.S. defense contractors. Russia is regarded by U.S. officials as being in the top tier of states with cyber-capabilities.

In the case of the White House, the nature of the target is consistent with a state-sponsored campaign, sources said.

The Russian state news outlets have started to respond to the report. Aleksandr Gostev, who is described as the chief anti-virus expert at Kaspersky Labs, has told Russia’s state-owned RIA Novosti news agency that it is “extremely difficult” to identify the country from which a hacking attack came from, in an apparent attempt to cast doubt on US claims that Russian government hackers were behind the White House breach.

In the interview today, Gostev told RIA Novosti (translated by The Interpreter):

“This could be done on circumstantial evidence, such as finding, in the code of the malware, words written in Cyrillic, or mistakes that are peculiar to Russian authors etc. But from our point of view they are not sufficient in themselves to draw such conclusions.”

Gostev also told RIA Novosti that conspicuous hints towards one country of origin may be left by hackers in order to divert investigators’ attention away from their true origin.

Furthermore, he continued, establishing the origin of a hacking attack requires, unless the perpetrators make a mistake, a long, international process with the help of law enforcement and internet security companies. A pitch he is of course, as a representative of such a firm, likely to make.

Kaspersky Labs, one of the world’s largest cyber security firms, has raised some eyebrows because it is headquartered in Russia and its founder is a former KGB agent with close ties to Russia’s security apparatus. Recently, Bloomberg profiled the company and its CEO, Eugene Kaspersky, highlighting both his close ties to the FSB and other high-ranking officials in the Russian government. As Wired also pointed out in 2012, Kaspersky Labs has played a key role in undermining STUXNET, spyware designed by the United States government designed to infiltrate the Iranian nuclear program. But Kaspersky has not given similar scrutiny to Russian hackers or spyware developed by the Kremlin.

Read our entire analysis here:

James Miller, Pierre Vaux
Newspaper Removes Interview With Burnt Russian Tank Gunner’s Mother

Dorzhi Batomunkuyev, the Buryat tank gunner severely burned near Debaltsevo in February, is in the news again as the local press in the Buryat Republic attempting to report his story has been censored, the US-funded Radio Svoboda reports.

Novaya Gazeta’s Yelena Kostyuchenko interviewed Batomunkuyev last month; the shocking story of a 19-year-old Buddhist man finding himself in combat in southeast Ukraine received over a million views.

Even before his interview appeared in Novaya Gazeta, he was visited by popular performer Joseph Kobzon, a big supporter of the “Novorossiya” cause who is on Western sanctions lists as a result. A video of Kobzon, who also happens to have a seat in the Buryat legislature that guarantees him immunity from criminal prosecution, was uploaded to YouTube while Batomunkuyev was in the Donetsk Central Clinic burns unit.

Sergei Basayev, a journalist from the newspaper Novaya Buryatiya decided to follow up on Batomunkuyev’s fate and found he was being treated in neighboring Zabaikalsky Territory but that his mother was complaining about lack of help from the Russian Defense Ministry.

The Interpreter reported on Basayev’s published interview with Batomunkuyev’s mother, Sesegma, on April 3.

However the article which was swiftly removed from the site, and even cut out of already-printed newspapers.

Timur Dugarzhapov, acting editor-in-chief said he did not view the incident as censorship, and Basayev does not want to pursue it now.

Radio Svoboda interviewed Dugarzhapov, Basayev and another journalist about the case.

Basayev said that he had heard Kostyuchenko’s article was fake and that’s why he wanted to meet the gunner. But he was not able to, and just spoke to Sesegma, who said that he was in too severe a condition to give interviews. She denied that the article was true.

Dugarzhapov said that when they published the article, they had a deluge of traffic from Ukrainians, and many aggressive comments and “the situation grew out of control.” As he told Svoboda:

“Things are quiet, calm in our republic and this flood frightened us of course. We realized that we had run into the territory of a fierce information conflict, so there was no desire to get drawn further into this polemics, into some completely terrible information war. Therefore we acted as we did.”

Radio Svoboda asked why they didn’t just turn off the comments, but the editor seemed not to want to have to deal with such a controversy. His paper has a print run of 50,000.

Basayev said he wanted to get the mother’s permission to visit Dorzhi, but she would not allow it because he was in too serious a condition. He then said he had heard that Kostyuchenko’s article was made up. There were also supposed to be other Buryats who had fought in Ukraine, but he did not being looking for them; he was disturbed that Buryatiya would get a bad name with these scandals.

Both of these concerns were, in fact, raised in the original article, in which Basayev described the furious condemnation of Kostyuchenko’s interview in Russia. He also noted that the image of Buryat fighters in Ukraine was being used as a short-hand for direct Russian involvement, with reference to jokes about Buryats in Ilya Barabanov’s interview with Russian volunteer fighters, published in Kommersant in February.

Furthermore, Basayev had also pointed out in his original piece that, despite the abundance of claims that the interview was faked, there had been no legal moves against Kostyuchenko or Novaya Gazeta following the publication.

Arkady Zarubin, journalist at Arshan, who had suffered a beating for his election coverage in the past, was the first to write about the removal of the article from Novaya Buryatia, which he believes was done by the FSB. Due to his coverage of unrest at Buryat University, he said he felt the secret police were more interested in him, and they would call him or summon him to meetings to discuss his views and activities. They grew particularly active in March, when a delegation from the US Embassy was supposed to come to Ulan Ude.

Said Zarubin:

“I think if it had not been from this pressure on the part of the intelligence agencies, the press would have let this through as a non-serious, ordinary story. They now have the opposite effect; if they had not removed the article, few people would have read it. Now there is more interest in it.”

We knew that the person was real, but the question was whether he had given the interview. His mother says now that he didn’t give the interview, but our valiant office [the FSB] has already worked her over.

He said that he had not heard of anyone fighting in the war from Buryatiya, which he attributed to the fact that this was a Buddhist republic where people would feel constrained not to fight. He believes there was no massive phenomenon; because the republic is small, word would get out. He conceded that Buryats could be fighting in Ukraine as volunteers but had not heard of any except two who have become famous on YouTube: two Buryats with the call signs Vakha and Thirteen who were part of the seizure of Logvinovo in Donetsk Region.

He had no confirmation of any “Cargo 200,” the bodies of those killed in combat, returning and thinks he would have heard of it.

— Catherine A. Fitzpatrick

Imprisoned Sochi Environmentalist Vitishko Goes on Hunger Strike after Supreme Court Refuses Appeal

Imprisoned environmentalist Yevgeny Vitishko of Krasnodar declared a hunger strike today in protest against the refusal of the Supreme Court to review his appeal, Caucasian Knot reported.

The Supreme Court’s collegium for criminal cases refused to review the appeal of the decision of the Tuapse City Court which changed his suspended sentence to actual imprisonment for three years in a labor colony.

Originally Vitishko was charged in 2012 with damage to a fence surrounding the dacha of Governor Aleksandr Tkachev, on which he put graffiti to protest construction of the building on a nature preserve.

Vitishko with fellow Sochi activist Suren Gazaryan, who was forced to flee to Estonia.

Yelena Shmakova, Vitishko’s common-law wife told Caucasian Knot that she had received a phone call from Yevgeny that he was beginning the hunger strike today, that he was refusing food and would only drink water.

Vitishko was the coordinator of North Caucasus Ecology Watch which had also expressed concerns about the Sochi Olympics construction.

Vitishko’s lawyer has already filed an appeal to the European Court of Human Rights.

Investigators Attempting to Tie Ruslan Geremeyev, Officer in Kadyrov’s Troops, to Nemtsov Murder

The Investigative Committee (IC) of Russia is looking to connect evidence from the investigation into the murder of Boris Nemtsov to Ruslan Geremeyev, an officer of the Chechen Interior Ministry Internal Troops, Kommersant reports.

Geremeyev has been tied to two suspects, Zaur Dadayev and Temirlan Eskherkhanov, who reportedly said he was introduced to Dadayev by Geremeyev. Ruslan is a relative of Senator Suleiman Geremeyev, who is in turn related to Adam Delikhanov, a cousin of Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov.

Kommersant says that the IC “was not able to interrogate” Geremeyev in Chechnya but does not explain how that could be so. Earlier, reported that he was held in Grozny and was being questioned as a witness. It may be that Moscow investigators have not been able to cross Kadyrov in following leads to men in his elite troops.

Investigators have taken finger prints and biological evidence from the Moscow apartment on Veyernaya St. where they say Dadayev hid out after the murder. A Groza trauma pistol and an Izh hunting rifle were found in the apartment. The weapons have been sent for ballistics analysis. Investigators say it is possible that the 9 mm bullets whose casings were found at the scene of the crime and were said to kill Nemtsov could have been used in the Groza.

Investigators also seized a Mercedes found at the Veyernaya Street address and are taking finger prints and biological materials from the car. They say that if evidence is found there, this could tie the suspects together. Currently the Chechens say they did not know each other, but anonymous sources have told Kommersant that Geremeyev introduce Eskerkhanov to Dadayev at the Zinc bar on Veyernaya Street near the apartment where they stayed, which belonged to Artur Geremeyev. Kommersant was not able to get a statement from Geremeyev or his relatives.

The Chechens’ defense attorneys say that they do not believe the car or the weapons were used in the murder.

— Catherine A. Fitzpatrick

Video Surveillance Cameras to Be Installed in Housing Complexes and Playgrounds in Chelyabinsk

Video surveillance cameras are going to be installed in public places in the southern Urals city of Chelyabinsk, Rossiyskaya Gazeta (RG) reports.

In the past, such cameras were only placed along roads to be monitored by the traffic police, and on stores to prevent robberies, says RG. But now the cameras are going to be placed to cover the inner court yards common in Russian housing complexes and children’s playgrounds.


The cameras will be monitored by police who already have a presence in housing complexes in security booths. They are designed to try to spot people illegally drinking alcohol or defacing public property with graffiti and sent out a “rapid response force” to stop them, say police.

The observation stations, called Centralized Security Posts (PTsO), plan to keep videotapes for 14 days on servers, said Vladimir Trifonov, deputy head of the Department for External Security of the Interior Ministry in Chelyabinsk Region. After a pilot program was announced in one neighborhood, managers of nearby complexes also asked to have the videos installed. Local residents interviewed said they welcomed the enhanced security and didn’t mind being filmed.

The idea for the program comes from Maj. Gen. Andrei Sergeyev, who brought the idea to Chelyabinsk from his previous position in the Interior Ministry in Khabarovsk where residents were said to “actively support” the program.

— Catherine A. Fitzpatrick

Rogozin ‘Imposes Order’ on Vostochny Space Center Where Workers Protested

As we reported, Vice Premier Dmitry Rogozin flew 5,600 kilometers to Amur Region this week to investigate the hold-up in pay. He discovered that one of the sub-contractors had delayed workers’ wages, leading them to declare a hunger strike. But now they’ve been paid, and all their demands met.
He has installed a labor inspector to manage future problems.

Translation: Order has been imposed at the space center.

Student workers from construction and aerospace institutes will be
sent here in May, and will receive 50,000 rubles or about $900 a month,
which is good pay for a student in Russia and also good experience. “Order was restored after some cadre purges,” said NTV. Rogozin handed his direct phone number out to builders and asked them to call them if there were problems.

Savin, the top manager of Dalspetstroi was fired, and investigators
have opened a criminal case. Sergei Terentyev, general director of
Stroiindustriya-S had not paid the workers for two months, delaying a
total of 14 million rubles ($254,572). He was arrested within hours of
the case being opened, and accused of deliberately holding up payments,
even though he had the funds available on the company’s accounts.

incident illustrates how the Russian government is dealing with the problem of delayed wages — swiftly and harshly, when they are able to find an employer who is the culprit.

They have been less quick to address the
growing problems of lay-offs
and workers’ strikes over these difficulties, and have preferred there to punish the workers. The “inspector general” formula where a
bigwig comes from Moscow and puts locals in their place is one used in
Russia from time immemorial, but the down side is that the cycle of
dependency never breaks, and locals are never able to take
responsibility for good performance themselves.

Workers in St. Petersburg picketed yesterday April 7 to protest General Motors’ lay-offs, Ekho Moskvy and Novaya Gazeta reported.

Workers demanded 18 months of severance pay, re-training, and guaranteed job placement if the plant re-started production.

Baltinfo quoted the picket organizers (translation by The Interpreter):

the statements by bureaucrats, including Denis Manturov, the minister
of industry and trade, the fired GM workers are experiencing serious
difficulties in finding work, especially work where conditions would be
at the level of GM.

reported today that Scania and MAN, which make specialized turck equipment were halting production.

GM, Peugot, Citroen and other foreign car manufacturers said they were
halting or curtailing production. GM announced last month that about
1,300 workers had to be dismissed due to discontinuation of the Opel,
due to the lack in consumer demand.

— Catherine A. Fitzpatrick

City Workers Remove Flowers and Candles from Bridge Where Nemtsov Was Killed
The flowers and candles placed at the site on Bolshoi Moskvoretsky Bridge in memory of slain opposition leader Boris Nemtsov are being removed by city workers.

Translation: Everything that hundreds of people brought yesterday to Nemtsov Bridge for the 40th days’ remembrance is being barbarically picked up and hauled away.

According to the Russian Orthodox tradition, 40 days after death, the soul departs the earth, and on that day, people gather to remember the departed. Yesterday, thousands came to the bridge once again to recall Nemtsov, and TV rain held an all-day marathon of musical performances and recollections.

The family of Boris Nemtsov asked that all the pictures, signs, letters, etc. be removed from the site yesterday, in order to preserve them at another location, TV Rain reported. They requested that only flowers and votive candles be placed there.

Supporters have asked the city to place a memorial plaque at the site of Nemtsov’s murder and rename the bridge “Nemtsov Bridge,” but so far authorities have not responded.

— Catherine A. Fitzpatrick

Russia Angered at Latvian Foreign Minister’s Comparison of Russia to Germany Before WWI and WWII

The Russian Foreign Ministry fired off a protest on its Facebook page today in English and Russia over a tweet made by Latvian Foreign Minister Edgars Rinkevics.

RBTH reported on what the Ministry characterized as “blasphemous” remarks.

Latvia, a NATO member relies on the military alliance in the face of growing Russian aggression since the Crimean Anschluss and Russian invasion of Donbass.

First the Foreign Ministry posted this comment marked as “opinion”:

The scandal caused by the Estonian president describing some EU
countries as Putin’s “useful idiots” had barely ended, when Latvia’s
foreign minister took up the baton. He wrote on Twitter: “The more I
follow modern RU, the more I come to conclusion that she will end up
like German Reich after both WWI & WWII & it’ll be to late.”

The Latvian “diplomat” certainly knows better. With the Latvian Legion
of Waffen SS holding annual marches in Latvia, the Baltic country has
first-hand knowledge about the Third Reich, because not even a complete
renovation can cover up the Nazi grime.

If Putin does have any “useful idiots” in the European Union, then Mr Edgars Rinkēvičs is definitely one of them.

The reference to “Putin’s useful idiots” may have been to a re-tweet President Toomas Ilves made of a piece in The Daily Beast with that title:

Later, the MID Facebook account posted this comment:

There is no point in commenting on the substance of such an outrageous
comparison, so we will just leave this on the Latvian Foreign Minister’s
conscience. We believe that throwing such a bombshell on Twitter is
indicative of a pathological condition.

There is nothing that the Kremlin hates more than a comparison between Nazi Germany and the Soviet regime or Putin’s regime. But the parallels are drawn because of Russia’s authoritarianism, oppression of minorities, the invasion of Ukraine and events like the International Russian Conservative Forum which drew many far-right and even neo-Nazi figures to St. Petersburg.

— Catherine A. Fitzpatrick