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, and see also our Russia This Week stories âAnti-Maidanâ Launched by Nationalists, Cossacks, Veterans, Bikers and The Guild War â How Should Journalists Treat Russian State Propagandists? and special features âManaged Springâ: How Moscow Parted Easily with the âNovorossiyaâ Leaders, Putin âThe Imperialistâ A Runner-Up For Timeâs âPerson of the Yearâ and It’s Not Just Oil and Sanctions Killing Russia’s Economy, It’s Putin.
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Metropolitan Varsonofiya of St. Petersburg and Ladoga called for a review of Fr. Savchenko.
Anatoly Artyukh, an aide to conservative deputy Vitaly Milonov in the St. Petersburg legislature, and the head of the St. Petersburg chapter of the Popular Assembly (Nadodny Sobor), said similar appeals will be sent to Patriarch Kirill of Moscow and All Rus, President Vladimir Putin, the Federal Security Service (FSB) and Interior Ministry.
Last year, Milonov launched a similar appeal against the St. Petersburg Soldiers’ Mothers, which ultimately led to the designation of “foreign agent” being applied to them and increased government scrutiny.
This incident and others related to “foreign agent” cases highlights the increasing climate of suspicion prompting people to go the authorities to inform on dissenters as they did in the Soviet era to the KGB. This enables authorities to say they are merely meeting public demand when they crack down on opposition.
Artyukh says he believes Fr. Savchenko should be forced to leave the Russian Orthodox Church as he is conducting “anti-clerical” and “anti-government” activity and also “is virtually instigating Maidan in St. Petersburg” (translation by The Interpreter):
“We do not consider him a Russian Orthodox priest. let him go to some Western church which he loves with which we have no canonical relationship. Let him take off his cross and go to any rallies. A priest who is engaged in political activity even from a positive perspective, this is not normal. But he’s doing that.”
Artyukh said that he believed it was “not ethical” to send officials appeals to various government offices before further talks were held with the priest. “Perhaps the man has already recanted, and it would turn out that we hadn’t understood him property.
Fr. Nikolai said he had been threatened directly by Popular Assembly, first by a letter and then with a personal visit. He said that on February 8, Artyukh and his fellow believers came to visit him at the Trinity-Sergius Hermitage in Strelna, where he serves. The priest told them that his statements about the situation in Ukraine were about making peace, and not political.
“Priests undoubtedly have the right to speak out against fratricidal war, wars between Orthodox peoples,” he said. He also cited the “Prayer for Peace in Ukraine” which had been approved by Patriarch Kirill; it called the war “internecine.”
Fr. Nikolai characterized Artyukh’s actions as “political pressure on a clergyman of the church by a branch of government,” since he is the aide to a legislator. He also said the visitors used “course language” with him.
Currently, Fr. Nikolai is serving at the monastery voluntarily. He was transferred from the Cathedral of the Transfiguration in Lesny and stripped of his slary in may 2014 after taking part in a protest against the war in Ukraine.
— Catherine A. Fitzpatrick
Washington Post reports:
That Egypt’s media sees Sissi, a former head of military intelligence, and Putin as having comparable backgrounds has helped feed the narrative that Russia is far better suited than the United States to be the country’s chief ally.
State-owned media has long, and unsurprisingly, served as a mouthpiece of the government, praising former president Hosni Mubarak and later covering positively the administration of ousted president Mohamed Morsi. But in the wave of nationalism that swept the country following Sissi’s coup against Morsi, state-owned Al-Ahram and even private media outlets have treated the military leader with particular reverence. Editors have signed a declaration promising to limit negative coverage of state institutions like the military and judiciary.
Putin, like Sissi, is therefore seen as a virile strongman who crushes dissent and stands up to the West. Having battled Russia’s own Islamist insurgency in Chechnya in the 1990s, Putin is viewed as sympathetic to Egypt’s own fight against terrorism.
But Putin is advancing a serious agenda. One of the announcements to come out of the trip is that Russia’s state-owned nuclear power company, Rosatom, will build four nuclear power plants for Egypt. TASS reports:
Russia and Egypt signed earlier on Tuesday a number of bilateral documents. In particular, Kiriyenko and Egyptian Minister of Electricity and Renewable Energy Mohamed Shaker signed an agreement on developing a project to build a nuclear power plant in north Egypt.
“The project relates to the construction of four 1,200 MW nuclear power plant units using Russian technology in north Egypt, on the coast of the Mediterranean Sea, in the area which the Egyptian government intends to develop intensively,” the Rosatom head said.
Russia is also working to exempt Egypt from its restrictions of wheat exports. Daily News Egypt reports:
Minister of Supply Khaled Hanafy will hold a meeting with the Russian Minister of Agriculture in the presence of Minister of Industry Mounir Fakhry Abdel Nour. The Egyptian team will seek to negotiate Egypt’s exemption from the import restrictions on Russian wheat.
In late December 2014, Russia, which is the fourth largest global exporter of wheat, announced it will impose unofficial restrictions on its grain export starting this February. The restrictions would address local high prices at a time when the country is facing a financial crisis linked to the decline of oil prices.
“Exempting Egypt from Russian restrictions will contribute to a reduction in wheat imports’ costs contracted by Egypt, the world’s largest wheat importer,” said the source.
The Russian state-operated propaganda outlet RT is carrying an even more important headline: “Egypt to join Russia-led Eurasian free trade zone.”
Egypt has established a free trade zone with the Russian-led Eurasian Economic Union, which includes Russia, Armenia, Belarus, and Kazakhstan, president Sisi of Egypt announced at a joint news conference with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
“We have reached an agreement to establish a free trade zone between Egypt and the Eurasian Economic Union,” Egyptian President Abdel al-Sisi said.
Both Putin and Sisi have had significant political differences with the United States. These developments are another signal that Egypt increasingly views Russia as a possible replacement for the role that the United States has traditionally played, and Russia sees Egypt as another outlet for its exports, and another ally on the international stage.
As we reported yesterday February 9, the micro-blogging service Twitter released its annual “Transparency Report” in which it stated it ignored 87% of the requests of the Russian censor, Roskomnadzor to block content, but had agreed to block 3 accounts and 9 tweets. It also did not disclose the sign-up information of any user from Russia.
Not surprisingly, Aleksandr Zharov, head of Roskomnadzor wasn’t happy with this defiance, and told Interfax that Twitter hadn’t fulfilled a single one of 108 requests to disclose the personal data of users, and contrasted this with US authorities who had sent 3,000 requests, most of which were fulfilled, as Twitter reported.
Roskomnadzor hasn’t disclosed who the 108 people are, so that the public could see whether they were activists planning demonstrations, or journalists reporting on events, or people under investigation for acts which either country would agree are crimes.
Twitter stated that it had “denied several requests to silence popular critics of the Russian government and other demands to limit speech about non-violent demonstrations in Ukraine.”
Zharov was indignant (translation by The Interpreter):
The fact that such a position was formulated in commentary to an official report of a company proves that Twitter consistently does not fulfill the requirements of Russian legislation. Roskomnadzor then has a legitimate question about the acceptability of such a position for a country that is carrying out its activity on the territory of Russia.
Zharov said a formal inquiry will be sent to Twitter to clarify its position; what’s at stake is a new Russian law requiring Internet services to place their servers on Russian territory by September 2015 or face blockage.
Last May, Zharov’s deputy, Maksim Ksenzov said Russia could block Twitter and Facebook “in a few minutes” if need be, but then was formally reprimanded at his job for making the statement.
Twitter was at first reported to have shut down dozens of accounts at the behest of Roskomnadzor, but later denied this claim last year. In the first half of 2014, it fulfilled 19 out of 32 requests to block content, and in the second, only 12 out of 91.
TASS reported that both Twitter and Facebook were due for talks in December in Russia about the placement of their servers there, but the current status of the negotiations is not known.
— Catherine A. Fitzpatrick
During a discussion at the Munich Security Council last weekend, Edward Lucas, Economist columnist and author criticized the Kremlin’s propaganda outlet, RT.com.
He called on journalists to boycott it, since it has produced so much disinformation and himself said he would not hire anyone with RT.com in their resume.
Dzintars Rasnačs / Facebook
Gordonua.com and other regional media reported that Lucas accused the Russian state journalists of “producing lies” and that they should be “pushed outside the gates of the media space” (reverse translation).
RT.com published a full transcript in English, which appears to be accurate. Here’s an excerpt of Lucas’ remarks:
“The use of information warfare was another big mistake we made
in 1991. We thought: what can possibly go wrong? We have a free
press, we have a free media market – truth will triumph. Well,
it doesn’t. It doesn’t triumph when you’re faced with RT, the
former Russia Today, or with Sputnik – the so-called media
organizations, which are directly plugged into the Kremlin lie
The use of force is only part of this hybrid warfare. Sometimes
it’s just assassination as we saw in London a few years ago
with the murder of Aleksandr Litvinenko. It can be the use of
organized crime. It’s the use of cyber-attacks to disable and
confuse. It’s also the little green men whom we saw in Crimea –
deniable. When you complain about them, you’re told that this
is just patriotic volunteers on holiday.
We also see the use of airspace violations – dozens and dozens
and scores and scores of airspace violations in the Baltic
States, the new frontline states of Europe. Very difficult to
know what to do to respond. Do you want to shoot these planes
down and start a war? Do you protest when the protests are just
ignored? What do you do?”
Lucas then proposed:
We need to get back the ability to rebut and to criticize. If
RT puts on people – and it does put on people who are Holocaust
deniers, who think that 9/11 was an inside job, who believe
that [the] Pope is a lizard – I’m not joking, this is true – we
should be able to humiliate those channels and those people and
the people who put them on, and the producers who put them on
and push them out into the media fringes so they are no longer
treated as real journalists and real programs but as cranks and
I think we could do a bit more of ostracism. I’m quite happy to
say that if anyone puts a CV on my desk, and on that CV I see
they worked at RT or Sputnik or one of these things, that CV is
going into the bin and not into the intro. We would not have
accepted it during the Cold War that people could move from
working for Pravda, or Izvestia, or TASS, and then into jobs in
Western media. Far too many people see a job at RT as the first
stage on a career ladder. It’s not. It’s the last stage on a
career ladder. It’s like working as a PR person for a tobacco
company, but even worse. And only then would I start looking at
regulatory things — and there are things we can do on a
regulatory side. We have a regulated media space. In my own
country, Ofcom is complaining to RT about its lack of balance.
So, there are things we can do but I think those things are the
last resort, not the first resort.”
The reference to “lizard people” had to do with conspiracist Karen Hudes:
The Interpreter’s columnist Adam Holland has also covered the use of Hudes by RT.com producers.
Lucas also asked a tough question of Russian
Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov after his presentation at the Munich conference, regarding Russia’s military plane flying in
international civilian airspace with its transponders shut off (27:43).
score points about the reliance of Westerners on RT.com for the very news of
Russia’s bad behavior:
Translation: Edward Lucas, who doesn’t love our channel, criticizes Lavrov with reference to our channel.
Back in November, Simonyan wrote on her Facebook, invoking Orwell, that the UK was threatening to remove her company’s broadcasting license — but that never happened. So it was hard for her to play the victim, but RT.com came up with a self-serving editorial
We are absolutely outraged by Mr Lucas’ comments. It is the
height of hypocrisy to come to an event, dedicated to the
collective resolution of the multitude of tough security
questions the world faces today, to use it as a platform for
In fact, while Mr. Lucas was shaming RT journalists from the
comfort and security of this conference, our crew was under fire
Lots of journalists have been under fire in Donetsk, including those we have covered frequently in our Ukraine Live, but they don’t feel the need to endorse Karen Hudes or justify flying without transponders — or lie about shell fire in fact coming from the Russian-backed separatists.
Some of the social media reaction to Lucas’ call, engineered by propagandists and Kremlin trolls, was far more brutal and some of it even turned to death threats:
Then Dmitry Kiselyev, talk show host and head of Rossiya Segodnya, which
is the parent company of RT.com, devoted a segment to Lucas, reported by Vesti.
Kiselyev and some other regional media covering the story got some of the facts wrong – Lucas in not the
editor-in-chief of the Economist, and not even the editor for Russia
coverage, but a senior editor responsible for coverage of energy,
commodities and natural resources, and made the recommendations
regarding RT.com in his personal capacity.
Kiselyev called Lucas “odious” and a “relict” of the Cold War.
Kiselyev also made much of the fact that the US Embassy spokesman
in Moscow, Will Stevens, reportedly ran a poll that attracted more
votes for RT.com than Lucas — as social media polls that come to the
attention of organized troll power will do. We haven’t found such a
poll in Steven’s Twitter time-line, however and have sent him an
inquiry. He did comment on the show:
The question of how to address the challenge of RT.com will
continue to divide the Western journalists’ community and continue to
provoke outrage from RT.com far outsized to the offense. Fact-checking
the lizard-people proponents is the easy part — it becomes harder when
you have to report on the Kremlin’s own bad behavior.
As we noted in The Guild War – How Should Journalists Treat Russian State Propagandists?, the focus should be on documentation:
And whether this focus on the facts is done by boycotting or
participating in panels, the task is still the same – to confront not
only those who are knowingly part of the system of paid information
apparatchiks, but the freelancers and fellow-travelers who maintain
their veil of integrity by not technically working for the state yet
spouting the same elements of its line.
Decent journalists need to document and expose the lies RT.com and other
Moscow-run media concoct and perpetrate, and challenge those reporters
who keep insisting on their status as legitimate and independent
critics. If journalists want to retain credibility as independent and
honest in their writing, they have to explain why they sound just like
— Catherine A. Fitzpatrick
Remember Bashneft? This was the oil company seized from its former owner Vladimir Yevtushenkov, who was put under house arrest as he was investigated for fraud, then finally released in December 2014 — a seeming beneficiary of Putin’s annual leniency.
It didn’t seem as if Yevtushenkov could back get this oil company, which was once an asset of the Republic of Bashkortostan in the Russian Federation and was sold for what some viewed as a discounted price.
Bashneft was nationalized by court order in October of last year and now 84.4% of its shares are state-owned after the company returned the shares to the government. What does that mean, who controls it?
Aleksandr Korsik, acting president and chairman of the board
Yevgeny Guryev, minister of land and property in Bashkortostan
Rustem Mardanov, vice premier of Bashkortostan and head of the national bank
Viktor Orlov, president of the Russian Geological Society
Vitaly Sergeychuk, head of the division of property and privatization of large organizations at Rosimushchestvo, the state property agency.
Aleksey Teksler, first deputy minister of energy
Yury Shafranik, director of Soyuzneftegaz
Some independent directors have also been nominated:
Charles Watson, non-executive board member of Taipan Resrouces, Inc., Kazakhmys Plc, Frac Water Systems, Inc. currently working at Bashneft
Maurice Dizhol, former head of Schlumberger in Russia
Anthony Considine, director of Considine Solutions Pty Ltd.
Currently, Feliks Yevtushenkov, son of Vladimir Yevtushenkov, who is the first vice president of Sistema, Vladimir Yevtushenkov’s company, is head of the board of directors of Bashkirneft, Vedomosti reports.
These media reports didn’t indicate when the elections will be, but on the corporate website Bashneft.ru, there is a statement that on February 13, the list of personswill be confirmed who can take part in a shareholders meeting on March 18.
— Catherine A. Fitzpatrick
Russia’s Defense Ministry has begun large-scale exercises in the Southern Military District in which soldiers from the intelligence and special divisions are taking part, Meduza and mil.ru report. (The Southern District is the former North Caucasus District.)
The training will proceed until early March in seven areas: Volgograd Region, Stavropol Territory, the republics of Chechnya, Dagestan, Adygey, Karachayev-Cherkesiya, North Ossetia-Alaniya, says the military press service.
These regions aren’t adjacent to Ukraine, but the units involved in this training are some of the same that have been found in battle in Ukraine, as has been determined by seeing the cases of those confirmed killed in battle and other reports showing Russia’s military presence in Ukraine.
And meanwhile, as RIA Novosti reports, there will be exercises adjacent to Ukraine — right in Russian-occupied Crimea. The divisions of the Black Sea Coastal Defense consists of more than 600 soldiers and about 50 armored vehicles most of which were added to the Fleet’s arsenal recently, says RIA Novosti. The exercise is “in accordance with the plan for combat readiness.” The Angarsky training grounds had not been used for a long time, says RIA Novosti, but after the Russian occupation this was quickly readied for the exercises.
Wide-scale field maneuvers with more than 2,000 soldiers of the intelligence and special divisions and 200 armored vehicles and special equipment have begun today, says RIA Novosti (translation by The Interpreter):
During the exercises, the soldiers will develop maneuvers in reconnaissance patrols and means of taking out the communications of a potential enemy, the tactic of conducting ambushes and raids and mastering of modern means of a topgraphical system of monitoring and navigation, the newest technologies for communication and observation.
As mil.ru reports, a particular focus of the training will be devoted to practice with SBR-3s (close reconnaissance stations) which enable the Russian military to see the enemy’s infantry, weaponry and armor even without visibility in any weather conditions up to 3,000 meters.
Igor Korochenko’s War Diary on LiveJournal provides some background information and photos of past trainings of these units in the mountains and TV1 had a feature on the Black Sea fleet coastal defense training in the fall.
— Catherine A. Fitzpatrick