Russia Update: As The EU Extends Sanctions, Tsipras Speaks In Saint Petersburg

June 19, 2015
Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tspiras meets Russian President Vladimir Putin in St. Petersburg, June 19, 2015 | AP Pool/ Ria Novosti/Kremlin/Mikhail Klimentyev

EU member states have agreed to extend economic sanctions against Russia by another six months, and announced the extension of their ban on investment or trade in occupied Crimea today. Meanwhile, the Greek prime minister, Alexis Tsipras, facing a potential debt default unless strained negotiations succeed, is in Saint Petersburg today, sharing a stage with Vladimir Putin.

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:

Is ‘Novorossiya’ Really Dead?
From Medal of Valor to Ubiquitous Propaganda Symbol: the History of the St. George Ribbon
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

Special features:

‘There Was No Buk in Our Field’
With Cash and Conspiracy Theories, Russian Orthodox Philanthropist Malofeyev is Useful to the Kremlin
Alexey Navalny On the Murder of Boris Nemtsov
Theories about Possible Perpetrators of the Murder of Boris Nemtsov

Please help The Interpreter to continue providing this valuable information service by making a donation towards our costs‏.

In Major Interview with Interfax, Chechen Strongman Kadyrov Doubles Down on His Defiance

In a major interview with Interfax today, Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov answered a number of frank questions with denials and distractions about the practices of police in his republic, the Nemtsov murder investigation, the handling of charitable funds, the prospect of oil extraction and more.

But on all the major scandals of recent months — his support of the officers suspected in the murder of opposition leader Boris Nemtsov; reprisals against relatives of terrorists; the order to shoot outside law-enforcers on sight if they weren’t permitted in Chechnya; and the support for a teen’s marriage and polygamy, just to name a few — Kadyrov only doubled down and further justified his actions.

Interfax began by asking him about the prospects for foreign investment in Chechnya, which in the Soviet era had some oil production of 20 million tons a year. Kadyrov replied (translation by The Interpreter):

“Today oil extraction has fallen to 600,000 tons, although our oil was the purest in the USSR. Today our revenue from ‘black gold’ is below 0. Kopecks only are given for geological surveys, there are no new oil derricks, and all the taxes from what exists goes to Moscow. The same is true of the construction of oil refineries: despite the president’s instruction, the issue hasn’t budged at all. We agreed to meet with the leadership of Rosneft in order to discuss all the problematic issues. I think we will find a decision. Perhaps I will reveal a secret, but we have a lot of oil. Our elders say there is no less than in Saudi Arabia.”

Asked if he would be willing to face direct elections, as other governors in Russia have done, he said he would but that if he didn’t get at least 90% he wouldn’t take the position. Yet Interfax pointed out that a figure like 90% would mean that he had no opposition. Votes for Putin in the Chechen Republic have been 99%, and are therefore not credible. Kadyrov said that he wouldn’t mind an opposition that “works for the people” but wouldn’t tolerate “a false and invented opposition.”

Kadyrov said election rules require that provincial leaders not use the image of the president in their campaigning — on Instagram, Kadyrov publishes photos of himself with Putin, or praise of Putin, every week. He objected to this:

“Who would I photograph myself with then? Obama or somebody? I don’t want to photograph myself with Obama or Merkel. I want to be with my president, I’m his representative. They think up nonsense and idiocy. If they are embarrassed to see me next to the president, why hold me here then? Say good-bye, go home, and that’s it.”

While there are no opposition groups in the Chechnya, in or out of parliament, Kadyrov claims that he invites criticism on TV.

Asked if he ever had ambitions to run for federal office — a frequent rumor — he said no, that he didn’t want to work in the Duma or the Federation Council or the presidential administration but his own republic.

When Interfax asked if Chechens were fighting in Ukraine, Kadyrov admitted there were volunteers from Chechnya as well as other regions of Russia but said there were Americans as well fighting on the side of the Russian-backed separatists “to defend the people of Donetsk and Lugansk.”

Pressed about the existence of a Chechen battalion, Kadyrov said “If there was a Chechen Battalion in the Donbass, they would have reached Kiev long ago.”

He refused to answer the question and began talking about human rights violations on the part of the Ukrainians and began complaining about Mikheil Saakashvili, the former Georgian president, who was recently appointed mayor of Odessa, calling him “a traitor to his country.”

Interfax then drilled him on the Nemtsov murder. His reply:

“The relatives and lawyers say that at the moment of the murder [of Nemtsov], Zaur Dadayev was not on the Bolshoi Moskvoretsky bridge, but was not even near it. Dadayev was detained in Ingushetia and as the defense claims, was beaten. He had a friend with him, and so that this man was released, Dadayev made a confession. I repeat, I know this from the relatives and lawyers.”

Interestingly, when covering this interview initially earlier today, both RIA Novosti and said that this remark about the innocent suspect not on the bridge related to Ruslan Geremeyev, not to Dadayev.

Asked if he had his own explanation for the murder, Kadyrov once again invoked the claim that Adam Osmayev, head of the Dzhokhar Dudayev Battalion, a pro-Kiev Chechen fighting the Russian-backed separatists, was to blame. He claimed that Osmayev’s father, Aslanbek Osmayev, took a contract out on Kadyrov in 2004, and that his son, Adam, “worked for Western intelligence.”

“The organizers of the murder exploited Nemtsov themselves and then liquidated him themselves and now try to shift the blame to someone else. Words are ascribed to me, as if I said that Nemtsov must be killed. That is not true! Why should he be murdered? What has he done to us? Did he ever get in my way? He hadn’t even come to Chechnya for many  years. The last time I saw him was 14 years ago in Gudemeres.”

This is an interesting reply, because it suggests Kadyrov has no motivation to kill Nemtsov over his critique of Kadryov’s police practices or his “personal army,” made in a Facebook post in December 2014, two months before his assassination.

The theory of the case is that Chechens angered by the Charlie Hedbo cartoons and reaction to the case by the Russian liberal media, or angered at liberal criticism of Kadyrov’s abuses, were motivated to kill Nemtsov.

Another theory says that Putin or his lieutenants ordered the murder to be performed by Chechens so that it would like like revenge over criticism of Chechnya. With Kadyrov himself saying he has no motive to kill Nemtsov, and backing up his fighters as innocent, the official investigation is going to have to come up with a theory to square the circle.

Interfax noted that Kadyrov was accused of covering up for Ruslan Geremeyev; the full answer here is provided with was compressed in previous Russian reports and mistakenly referred to Geremeyev “not on the bridge” (translation by The Interpreter):

“I know Ruslan Geremeyev very well. We fought against terrorists. I know him as a patriot of Russia, and I consider what is ascribed to him to be mistaken. I don’t think he could be part of this. Yes, I heard in the press that he had left. And what should he do in your view? Being innocent, sitting alongside Dadayev in pre-trial detention? Probably he didn’t like that prospect. When everything is clarified, Geremeyev will have the opportunity to confirm his innocence and sue those who libeled him. Of course, I don’t know all the details connected with his supposed departure.”

Interfax asked Kadyrov about his order to shoot law-enforcers from other republics of Russia if they came into Chechnya in pursuit of criminals without authorization. Kadyrov made this threat, recorded on Grozny TV, after Stavropol police followed a Chechen fugitive to Chechnya and shot him dead when he wouldn’t surrender. Kadyrov was infuriated that no criminal investigation was conducted and nothing was done about his complaints.

Kadyrov doubled down on his position, but justified it by saying the police who came from Stavropol were wearing masks, and because they were in masks, the Chechen law-enforcers couldn’t be sure they were terrorists. He insisted that the Stavropol police violated procedures and laws, and complained again that the Investigative Committee was putting the brakes on an internal investigation of the incident.

“Then I said: it’s not worth taking a risk, shoot to kill people in masks. I repeat: on armed people in masks, about whom the police officers don’t know anything. I do not retract my words. I must protect my people who are citizens of Russia. Liberals have began to write that Kadyrov has declared war on police and order shooting the police, and the gentlemen from the Interior Ministry and the Investigative Committee have fallen for this provocation. I myself am a general of the Interior Ministry. Would I declare war against myself? That’s ridiculous.”

When Interfax insisted that his statement sounded threatening, Kadyrov said it would only sound like a threat to a bandit or a terrorist, not to keepers of law and order.

Kadyrov denied that he was any kind of renegade not subordinate to central control, but cleverly, he tied his loyalty to the persona of Putin.

“As for some sort of threats, it is horrible for me to hear this! I am not threatening anyone, and I urge and demand that the law and rules be obeyed, which by the way were not put in place by me. I am the least problematic person in Russia. One phone call, one word from the Supreme Commander-in-Chief [Putin], is law for me. I, like no one else, am loyal to the president. How can I fight with his subordinates? But those who violate the law on the territory entrusted to me, for me and for all citizens is a criminal and must answer for his actions before the laws of Russia.”

Kadyrov also reiterated that he believed the relatives of terrorists should be punished if they have not informed on their kin to the police. He said they should be stripped of jobs, pensions and residence.

Asked about polygamy, which is banned under Russian law but tolerated in the Chechen Republic, Kadyrov said it was a Muslim custom. “If I speak against polygamy, I am not a Muslim.” He said that Russians that maintained mistresses were immoral and they should have wives instead, and also have more children, to solve Russia’s demographic shortfalls.

Regarding the recent scandal of the 17-year-old girl said to be forced to marry a middle-aged police chief, Kadyrov said he was 47, not 57, and that it was a legal marriage. Indeed, Russian law allows for marriages at 17 with the permission of the local authorities, which in this case, the police chief could give himself. He insisted that there were no violations of Russian law. An issue with the marriage, however, was the question of whether the police chief was divorced from his first wife. Kadyrov didn’t clarify this but said that polygamy should be allowed in the North Caucasus because it was a Muslim tradition.

— Catherine A. Fitzpatrick

Kadyrov Denies His Officer Geremeyev Was Involved in Nemtsov Murder

Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov said Ruslan Geremeyev, an officer of his Interior Ministry troops suspected of organizing the murder of opposition leader Boris Nemtsov, did not commit the assassination, reported, citing RIA Novosti.

Yesterday sources in the investigation leaked the information that Geremeyev was being put on “investigation manhunt” status because investigators had been unable to access him when they traveled to Chechnya and now he is believed to have fled the country.

Kadyrov denied the claims, referring to the Bolshoi Moskvoretsky Bridge where Nemtsov was assassinated:

“He is not guilty, he was not on the bridge, nor near the bridge, nor in the area. Geremeyev is prepared, according to his relatives, to go to court, if he will be treated fairly, but everyone knows that he is not involved. Geremeyev is one of the best soldiers who has protected our state, Russia.”

Kadyrov emphasized that Russia should look for real enemies “who are now laughing, sitting in Ukraine.” This is a reference to a repeated charge in Russian state media and pro-Kremlin tabloids that pro-Kiev Chechens fighting against the Russian-backed separatists are responsible for Nemtsov’s murder.

Kadyrov’s statement ups the ante for Putin, who has ordered the chiefs of the Investigation Committee, Federal Security Service and Interior Ministry to take personal responsibility for the investigation. So far, what they have come up with — according to leaks in the media — is evidence that Geremeyev was in fact tied to the suspects through video surveillance tapes as well as through the confessions of the suspects themselves (since retracted under claims of torture).

But these officials have not made formal public statements about this evidence. The chief investigator has already been changed to one who is believed will give a more favorable treatment to Chechens related to the powerful family of Russian Senator Adam Delimkhanov, who is a relative of Kadyrov; Geremeyev is Delimkhanov’s relative.

If Kadyrov says Geremeyev is not involved, yet Putin’s law-enforcers say otherwise, something will have to give. But the show-down may not occur for some time, as so far Putin’s investigators have simply had no comment, letting leakers with conflicting and unverified stories occupy the media.

— Catherine A. Fitzpatrick

What Did We Learn From Putin At His Forum With Tsipras in St. Petersburg?

As we’ve been reporting, Russian President Vladimir Putin spoke at an economics forum in St. Petersburg with the Greek prime minister, Alexis Tspiras. But what have we learned today because of the forum?

Moscow bureau chief at The Washington Post, Michael Birnbaum, had this commentary:

At this point in the event, Birnbaum notes that this is a pretty standard set of answers from Putin. Russia is strong, Ukraine is a coup, everyone needs to support the Minsk peace agreement, the “West” is meddling in others affairs, and Russia is the victim. But Putin’s responses did get interesting.

A Not-So-Veiled Threat

This last statement sounds more like a threat than an explanation of the current situation in Ukraine, which might be, to this author’s knowledge, the clearest indication yet that Putin is considering escalating the conflict if he deems it necessary.

There have been many articles today about the prospect that Russia might bail out Greece if the latter cannot strike a deal with the European Union. But can Russia really afford such a move? There are many skeptics.

New York Times Moscow bureau chief Neil MacFarquhar has additional comments:
Putin, of course, reasserted his support for Syrian President Bashar al Assad, but failed to take any responsibility for the violence in the region.

Putin closed his remarks by once again trying to paint Russia as a positive player in the world community and by downplaying the damage caused by Western sanctions while at the same time painting such sanctions as counter-productive, arguing that they hurt Europe’s economy and Europe’s relationship with Russia.

“Speaking about the sanctions, the situation is not that bad. There are pluses and minuses.”

Putin said that the situation Russia faces today is “very far from a catastrophe… What we are trying to achieve is the growth of the economy… We would not like to respond to any of the destructive actions.”

Putin also dismissed the legitimacy of Western sanctions. “Only sanctions imposed by the United Nations are legitimate… The future with Russia and relations with ANY partner country does not depend on Russia…”

Moderator and American journalist Charlie Rose asked Putin about a list of “hot issues,” from Ukraine to Syria to Russia’s relations with its European neighbors.  Rose said Russia was actively “aggressive” (Rose suggested that Putin might take offense to such a description) and asked him:

“People say you have more unconstrained power than any leader in the world… how do you see Russia as part of the solution?”

Putin responded:

“I did not like you using the term aggressive. We are not being aggressive. We are persistent. We are consistent in pursuing our issues, like before… we are pushed farther and farther away, until the red line we cannot cross… Russia is not striving for dominance or trying to be a super power.”

Putin insisted that Russia is not the one imposing its influence on others.

Interestingly, while large parts of this forum echoed themes seen across Russian state propaganda and the messaging emerging from Kremlin official statements, one member of the panel pushed back on Putin’s assertions several times:

James Miller
Investigation Opened into Recruitment of Moscow Student to ISIS; Another Student Said to Join

A Russian student detained in Turkey on her way to join ISIS was recruited by a Syrian man who said he would marry her, Moskovsky Komsomolets (MK) reported.

Varvara Karaulova, 19, a student at Moscow State University (MGU), was reportedly recruited through social networks by a man who called himself “Klaus Klaus,” a native of Kazan, who had communicated with her for three years.


She was brought back to Russia by her family on June 16, and had no comment for the press, who dogged her at the airport.

An investigation is underway in Tatarstan about recruitment to ISIS, although police say the recruiter is in Syria now. The recruiter contacted Varvara through another member of an online forum named “Vlada K.” on the apps Viber and WhatsApp.  Gradually she was said to become his “Internet lover” and had agreed to convert to Islam. Authorities believe “Klaus Klaus” is a professional ISIS recruiter because he began similar relations with other women. He told Karaulova that he could marry her only if she came to Syria.

Aleksandr Karabanov, the family’s lawyer, believed that Karaulova was given psychotropic drugs. Now that she is back home, he says she does not understand why she made such a radical decision to leave Russia and join ISIS and can’t explain her behavior. Even so, the Russian media has speculated that Karaulova may be charged herself for participation in an unlawful armed group. reported on June 10 that while Karaulova was in Turkey she was very depressed and wanted to return to Russia. Doctors rejected the claim that she was given psychotropic drugs because they were unable to find any evidence after a medical examination.

MK reports that Karaulova was arrested with a group of people which included 4 Azerbaijani citizens, and 13 Russian citizens — 4 women, 3 men and 6 children from 1 to 8 years of age. The Russian media has published the list of their names and noted that some came from the North Caucasus, notably Dagestan. One of the group members was originally born in Uzbekistan. Journalists found their VKontakte pages. One group member wrote in Arabic, was in a Muslim group on VK, and also uploaded pictures of herself in a hijab sitting in various expensive cars with a bearded man. Her husband knew five languages including Azeri and Portuguese and wrote on his VK page that he loved Allah.

Now another student, Mariam Ismailova, age 19, has also reportedly run away to join ISIS as well, says MK. Ismailova was a second-year student in managing and marketing at the Russian Presidential Academy of National Economy and Public Administration. The school press secretary said she was a good student. A fellow student said she seemed friendly and open and didn’t let on that she was planning to flee to Syria for romantic reasons, although she did hope to get married and have a family. Her father says she was previously an obedient daughter but when she left home, she took all the money in the house. He believes she went to Syria to join ISIS.

In past a report, MK reporters learned from Muslim clerics at mosques in Moscow that graduation ceremonies and parties could be events where young women were recruited. They described several Muslim men who said they would “look for a wife for themselves at a Moscow graduation party in Gorky Park.” The imams talked them out of this saying it was not in the Muslim tradition to look for a wife as if for a thing at a bazaar.

The FSB told MK that people should not assume that ISIS recruiters look like terrifying bearded men with machine guns (translation by The Interpreter):

“It can be a nice girl with a Slavic appearance and a young man with European manners. These are educated people with whom it is pleasant to talk. They can get acquainted with you ‘accidentally’ during holiday festivities, they can invite you to a cafe or to their home. The first meeting is usually quite innocent, but likely they may slip amphetamines into your drink or food (a synthetic drug simulating the brain). At the first use, a person feels a boost — a clearing of the mind, an improvement in memory, a surge of ability to work. But since the drug acts at the expense of the resources of one’s own organism, in time there is a fall, a lessening of self-criticism, a paralysis of the will and the memory worsens.”

Vladimir Mironov, the dean of Moscow State University, told MK that there were “far more scandalous” students at MGU than Varvara, referring to the members of Pussy Riot. He gave a different picture of her than previous sources, saying she was a “C” student in a course on early Christianity and that she may be expelled because she had missed a term. An MK correspondent asked if she shouldn’t be given a chance to start over and be supported. Mironov replied (translation by The Interpreter):

“You shouldn’t make a heroine out of her. She is an adult and has responsibility for the problems she has created. Especially because she is not expelled yet.

“By the way, we did not expel even more scandalously infamous students [Pussy Riot] for a fairly long time…We realize that we have a unique faculty, people come to us who read Nietzsche, religious literature, and cannot always sense the border which separates peaceful philosophy from dangerous tendencies. Plus, you shouldn’t make a tragedy out of this ‘expulsion.’ She can be reinstated, this is a normal, ordinary procedure. We had people, there have been cases, who were reinstated even after places not so far way!”

FSB director Aleksandr Bortnikov says at least 1,700 Russia citizens, many from the North Caucasus, have been recruited into ISIS.

— Catherine A. Fitzpatrick

Greek Prime Minister Tsipras Speaks Alongside Putin In Saint Petersburg

The Greek prime minister, Alexis Tspiras, is in Saint Petersburg today to meet President Vladimir Putin and speak at the Saint Petersburg International Economic Forum (SPIEF).

AFP reported this morning that Greece and Russia had signed a memorandum on the construction of a gas pipeline from Russia to Greece.

The two countries will jointly own the venture, ministry spokeswoman Olga Golant told AFP. Russian gas giant Gazprom had earlier proposed footing the bill for building a Greek pipeline extension of the Russia-Turkish energy venture TurkStream, which aims to deliver gas to Europe while bypassing Ukraine.

Following Vladimir Putin, Tsipras took to the stage at SPIEF this afternoon:

Excerpts from Tsipras’ speech:

We don’t have to stick to the old standards and continue building walls around us. For example, the crisis in Ukraine is a new hotbed of instability within Europe, which is a very bad sign for international relations in general. Instead of economic prosperity and cooperation, what we are witnessing in the region is the process that might lead to militarisation, war and imposing sanctions. This vicious circle has to be disrupted as soon as possible and diplomatic initiatives in this regard have already been put in place. I am referring to the implementation of the Minsk agreements that have to be totally supported…

Russia is one of the most important partners for us…

The EU should go back to its initial principles of solidarity, justice and social justice. Ensuring strict economic measures will lead us nowhere.

The new, emerging multi-polar world will definitely be based on a new order. But it will only be based on a new order if it eliminates all the things inherited from the old world orders. Up until now, it has taken courage on behalf of leaders to take those decisions. But we cannot continue carrying the burden of the past. If we continue to do so, we will continue making the same mistakes again and again. And we are doomed to fail. 

Putin and Zhang Gaoli, the Chinese first vice premier, watched from the side of the stage:


In the front row, Tsipras was applauded by leading Russian officials, including the foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov,  and the first deputy prime minister, Igor Shuvalov.


Another Russian official spotted in the audience was the Chechen dictator, Ramzan Kadyrov.

Translation: Aleksei Leonidovich, may I ask you a question about your idea on early elections?

At home, Tsipras is facing a potential default on Greece’s sovereign debt. Negotiations are still under way with the European Central Bank, but there has been little progress with Greece scheduled to pay the ECB €4.2 billion tomorrow.

There is speculation that Tsipras, who has been outspoken in his support for Russia, would seek Kremlin money to bail out the Greek economy in the event of a default or exit from the Eurozone.

However this would likely be too great an economic strain on Russia while it is already reeling from sanctions, the drop in the price of oil and the costs of waging a war and funding the unprofitable territory of occupied Crimea. 

Instead, today is likely a move to further influence between the two states. Perhaps such a public demonstration of alliance with Putin today is a signal to the EU that, unless a compromise can be reached with Greece, the EU’s current foe will have a far greater hand in Europe’s heartland. 

— Pierre Vaux

EU Extends Trade And Investment Ban On Occupied Crimea

The European Union has announced this afternoon that the their ban on European trade and investment in occupied Crimea has been extended for a another year.

Reuters reports:

“The EU continues to condemn the illegal annexation of Crimea and Sevastopol by the Russian Federation and remains committed to fully implement its non-recognition policy,” an EU statement said.

The measures, extended until June 23, 2016, include a ban on importing products made in Crimea into the EU.

Investment in Crimea is also banned, meaning Europeans and EU-based companies may not buy real estate or companies in Crimea, finance Crimean companies or supply related services.

European cruise ships cannot call at ports in the Crimean peninsula, except in an emergency, and it is forbidden to provide other tourism services in Crimea.

Products and technologies for prospecting, exploration and production of oil, gas and mineral resources may not be exported from the EU to Crimea. Exports to Crimea of certain products for use in the transport, telecommunications and energy sectors are also banned.

On June 17, it was reported that EU member states had agreed “in principle” to extend their economic sanctions against Russia for another six months.

Today Reuters reports that EU foreign ministers are expected to ratify this move, extending the sanctions until January 31, 2016, on Monday in Luxembourg.

— Pierre Vaux