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 Former Russian Intelligence Officers Behind Boisto âTrack IIâ Talks â and Now the Flawed Minsk Agreement and Johnsonâs Russia List Spreads Invented Story About Germany Preparing Sanctions Against Kiev
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Yesterday, February 12, police in St. Petersburg arrested Maksim Kalinichenko on suspicion of planning to create a “Russian Right Sector,” yodnews.com reported, citing TASS. Kalinichenko was allegedly in touch with the banned ultrarightist group Right Sector in Ukraine.
According to an agent of the Federal Security Service (FSB) for St. Petersburg and Leningrad Region (translation by The Interpreter):
He is suspected of involvement of creation on the VKontakte social network of a group “Russian Right Sector,” with dissemination of articles with calls for carrying out extremist activity and also with publish support of the actions of the Ukrainian extremist organization Right Sector.
Kalinichenko had previously been given a suspended sentence of 2.5 years for calls for violence during an unauthorized rally in 2011 on Nevsky Prospect and also in social networks.
The state censor has also ordered the closure of Right Sector on Twitter, one of a few orders the US company has complied with.
The coverage of the arrest in Russian media evidently prompted Roskomnadzor, the state censor, to issue a notice today regarding the mentioning in the media of organizations in the Justice Ministry’s list of “extremist” groups, yodnews.ru reports.
Under Art. 4 of the mass media law, publishing information about groups in the list is prohibited unless it is also mentioned that they are banned:
Mention of the organizations in the list is permission in media materials in a negative vein, with the use of characterizations such as “radical,” “extremist,” and “nationalist.” In addition, the text of the report must contain a direct reference to the liquidation or ban on the activity of such organizations.
There are currently 41 groups banned on Russian territory, including 5 Ukrainian groups. These includes well-known groups ranging from the National Bolshevik Party founded by Eduard Limonov, who went on to found the Other Russia party and who frequently appears in the media; the Muslim sect Nurcilar founded by Said Nursi, a Kurdish theologian popular in Central Asia; the Tatar section of Russian National Unity and the Slavic Union, a national-socialist movement claiming to have 70,000 members. It also includes obscure groups like the Noble Order of the Devil of Mordovia, the Kirov chapter of the Dinamo Football Fans Club and Pit Bull of Krasnodar.
— Catherine A. Fitzpatrick
Workers in Chelyabinsk have tried to close a road today due to delays in their pay, Znak.com reports.
Yesterday, police broke up an unauthorized picket organized by employees of Construction Department No. 1 who were angry at the long delay in their pay and drove road equipment to block the road.
Police in the Chelyabinsk Region Interior Ministry said 25 people came to the 1,813th kilometer of Highway M5 (near the village of Travniki) to block the road. A resident of the city of Emanzhelinsk whose name was not provided is threatened with arrest for organizing a rally without permission.
“We haven’t seen any money since October 2014. Most of the workers were fired before New Year’s without their back pay. Those who remain also haven’t been paid,” Dmitry Chernov told Vostochny Ekspress TV, according to a report from Uralinformburu.
The demonstrators were hoping their boss would be forced into talks, but instead, the police came and told them to leave or they would be arrested, Uralinformburo reported. Nevertheless, the workers are planning another action on February 16, this time with their wives and children, if they are not paid.
Construction Department No. 1 is part of MDS Group, a large company with offices in Moscow.
— Catherine A. Fitzpatrick
Vladimir Zhirinovsky, the erratic ultranationalist leader of the ill-named Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR) told the state news channel Rossiya 24 yesterday that “Ukraine never kept to its agreements,” angrily recalling a childhood incident with a Ukrainian boy in school to back up his claims.
Zhirinovsky rambled on, calling for gas to be shut off to Ukraine and saying that since so many Ukrainians had already fled to Russia, he urged that “15 million Ukrainians should be thrown beyond the Ural Mountains,” where there would be enough space and food for them and “no one will shoot.”
Translation by The Interpreter:
Take the whole combat-capable part of Ukraine. Deprive them of gas. Deprive them of money. Deprive them of the army. And last, deprive them of the population. We must summon the population of Ukraine to Russia. All those who want. We can take half of Ukraine and throw it beyond the Urals. It’s 15 million.
A number of Ukrainian outlets and social media accounts
are also publishing today stories about a rant by Zhirinovsky reportedly made at the State
Duma yesterday February 12 following the announcement of the Minsk
agreement, showing him evidently calling for “bombing Germany.”
As can be heard on the video, it is spliced together from many snippets
of a speech, and jumps from one segment to another, which makes it difficult to authenticate.
The video in fact is not from yesterday, as
the ticker running under the footage of Zhirinovsky speaking has stories
such as a suspected case of Ebola at the Sheremeytovo Airport, which occurred on January 20, 2015 and also a story about the Central Bank revoking the licenses of two banks, which was also on January 20, 2015.
In the video, Zhirinovsky condemned one of the most commonly used propagandistic slogans of the Soviet era (translation by The Interpreter):
“There shouldn’t be such concepts of ‘Friendship of Nations.’ There is only cold calculation. When there’s the whip, when the gendarmes are coming, when the spetsnaz are coming, then they are silent and don’t won’t jerk.
Who is ruining relations today? Merkel, Angela Merkel! She’s the main instrument of the EU, NATO, and today, because of her, we have sanctions and all the rest. Therefore…we need to burn all of Paris. Why storm Berlin? Bomb all of Germany! From the airfields of Russia, bomb Germany so that nothing remains! Not a single stone! Not a single German! Then the country is a victor.”
We haven’t located the original full-length tape, and the statements seem consistent with some of the wild things Zhirinovsky has said in the past, but it was not in response to the Minsk agreement, and evidently said back in January.
– Catherine A. Fitzpatrick
The original Russian language of the Minsk agreement is being poured over now for clues to
understanding how some of the pledges might be kept — or not.
Point 5 says (translation by The Interpreter):
5. Ensure the pardoning and amnesty through introducing a law in
force prohibiting the prosecution and punishment of persons in
connection with events which took place in certain districts of Donetsk
and Lugansk Regions of Ukraine.
But this has immediately caused concerns about an amnesty of the
perpetrators of the downing of MH17 — widely believed to be
Russian-backed separatists — in which 298 people were killed, as well
as other grave war crimes.
Point 6 concerns what has been reported as “a POW exchange” but which actually contains a broader term:
6. Ensure the release and exchange of all hostages and
unlawfully detained persons on the basis of the principle of “all for
all”. This process should be completed no later than the fifth day after
This is the same language used on the September 5, 2014 document, which at that time gave rise to expectations by Valentyn Nalyvaychenko, head of the Ukrainian Security Service (SBU), that Savchenko would be released. Her defense team tried to secure recognition of her POW status in order to get her included in exchanges.
By using the Russian word for “hostages” (zalozhniki) rather than voyenoplenniye
(prisoners-of-war), there is a theoretical possibility to get around any legal
hurdle that Russian authorities may throw up regarding the release of
Nadiya Savchenko, claiming that she is not a POW because they are
ostensibly not a party to the war. So far, Moscow has not accepted that broader interpretation to apply to Savchenko saying that she is not included in the exchange of POWs and is not eligible for the amnesty, which only applies to those on Ukrainian territory.
Moscow claims she herself entered
Russian territory and was suspected as an accomplice in the murder of
two Russian journalists. (They were most likely killed accidentally by
shell fire at a militants’ checkpoint, as we reported here, here and here.)
Savchenko and her lawyers reject Moscow’s version of events, saying
she was abducted and is innocent of any murder changes, and has called
her “an unlawful prisoner of war.” Others have called her “a political
hostage” to the Ukrainian war or a “political prisoner” as she is held
for political reasons, not due to any evidence.
President Petro Poroshenko was optimistic that Savchenko would be
released regardless of the formulation as part of the deal to exchange
prisoners. As the Washington Post reported:
“I raised the issue of the
release of Nadiya Savchenko and I was informed that it should be done
soon after the medical examination and the preliminary findings of the
investigation are finalized,” Poroshenko told reporters Thursday, adding that he had the support of German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Francois Hollande as well.
But as the Washington Post also reported, there is room for slippage in this agreement on Moscow’s side:
Whether Russia would actually acquiesce and release Savchenko is not
confirmed, however. In the past, the Kremlin has said it was a matter
for the courts and refused to influence them. “An automatic release
mechanism for someone accused of complicity in the murder … does not
exist,” Alexei Pushkov, a prominent lawmaker and head of Russia’s
parliamentary committee on international affairs, told reporters Thursday.
Pushkov has been included on the EU and Canadian sanctions’ list with regard to the war in Ukraine.
Both Regnum and TASS, pro-government news services, have said Savchenko isn’t included in the list of POWs to be exchanged. Regnum refers to “sources” and TASS references the interpretation of two members of the Presidential Council of Human Rights who have taken pro-Kremlin positions in the past.
But if the broader language of the Minsk agreement stands, she
could be released anyway as a hostage of the situation. It depends on
whether the Kremlin will move quickly to make good on the pledges as President Poroshenko understood them
— Catherine A. Fitzpatrick
The Russian state wire service TASS reported at 11:46 Moscow time that the statute in the Minsk agreement regarding the amnesty of perpetrators of crimes does not apply to imprisoned Ukrainian pilot Nadiya Savchenko, says Dmitry Peskov, presidential spokesman.
Referring to point 5, Peskov said (translation by The Interpreter):
This point speaks of those people who are on the territory of Ukraine; the amnesty cannot apply to those in other countries.
The Minsk document was published in Russian by OSCE yesterday.
Point 5, as The Interpreter has translated, says:
Ensure the pardoning and amnesty through introducing a law in force
prohibiting the prosecution and punishment of persons in connection with
events which took place in certain districts of Donetsk and Lugansk
Regions of Ukraine.
There is also the question of Point 6, and whether that could apply to Savchenko, given that it does not refer to POWs but more broadly to “hostages”:
6. Ensure the release and exchange of all hostages and unlawfully
detained persons on the basis of the principle of “all for all”. This
process should be completed no later than the fifth day after the
President Petro Poroshenko said at a press conference yesterday that he believed he was given a pledge that Savchenko would be released, although it was continent on several factors.
Now Peskov is making it clear that Moscow has no intention of using any language or understanding of the Minsk agreement to release Savchenko.
Peskov said that the question of the fate of Savchenko was touched upon in talks with the Ukrainian President Petro Poroshekno, and also French President Francois Hollande and German Chancellor Angela Merkel. ‘”resident Putin gave detailed explanations regarding this case,'” he said.
“Regarding Savchenko, investigatory actions are under way; the degree of her guilt will be determined by a court,'” said Peskov, reiterating the position of the Russian government.
While there was hope that Savchenko might be released one way or another, her sister told the Kyiv Post yesterday that she believed it unlikely precisely for the reason Peskov later stated:
“It’s too early to celebrate,” she told the Kyiv Post after the deal was announced.
“It says that all those ‘illegally kept’ will be released. But (to Russia) Nadiya is a legally imprisoned person,” said the sister.
Russian officials have excluded Savchenko from POW exchanges in the past on the grounds that Russia is ostensibly not a party to the war and therefore her arrest and imprisonment in Russia was unrelated. Her lawyers have sought unsuccessfully to have her declared a prisoner-of-war so that she could be eligible for regular exchanges made between the Ukrainian armed forces and the Russian-backed militants in southeastern Ukraine.
Savchenko is on the 63rd day of a hunger strike. The Kyiv Post reported that doctors have begun injecting her with “glucose, amino acids and medication to receive nutrition and support her digestive system.”
— Catherine A. Fitzpatrick
Natalya Pelevin posted a picture on her Facebook page of a “Novorossiya” recruiting station at a metro stop in Moscow yesterday, February 12, even as the Minsk peace agreement was reached. She writes (translation by The Interpreter):
Here’s a booth at the Tretyakovskaya metro stop with this kind of call. A call to aggression, war and conquering the territories of sovereign states. No one is touching this booth, unlike the opposition pickets for peace. This is everything you need to know about Putin’s Russia.
“Novorossiya” [New Russia] is an aspirational realm of Russians and Russian-speakers outside of Russia, made up of parts of Ukraine, Moldova and Belarus based in part on past territories of the Russian Empire.
The sign has the following headlines:
Tomorrow Russia Will Grow Larger. Today It Depends on You How Much!
Novorossiya Needs You!
Help the Donbass!
The picture shows a well-equipped fighter and wounded people.
— Catherine A. Fitzpatrick
It can be downloaded here on the OSCE website, where it can be seen with this title, “Complex of measures for fulfillment of the Minsk agreements agreed by the Trilateral Contact Group at the Minsk Summit on February 12, 2015.
In a news release at osce.org, the OSCE Chairperson-in-Office, Serbia’s Foreign Minister Ivica Dačić,
welcomed the results of the Summit in Minsk and gave his full support to
the package of measures for the implementation, says the OSCE Newsroom.
At that link, the same Russian-language document only can be found with the standard caveat:
“The views, opinions, conclusions and other information expressed
in this document are not given nor necessarily endorsed by the
Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) unless the
OSCE is explicitly defined as the Author of this document.”
There is some concern now as to whether this document, signed by the original participants in the Minsk agreement of September 5, 2014, is what is accepted by all parties as the final document and will be used going forward to implement the promises. The signatures are:
Amb. Heidi Tagliavini [OSCE]
L.D. Kuchma, Second President of Ukraine
M.Yu. Zurabov, ambassador of Russian Federation to Ukraine
Yet the participants in the summit were French President Francois Holland, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Russian President Vladimir Putin and Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko. This grouping of four leaders has been called “the Normandy format” because the parties first met in June 2014 at the 70th anniversary of the World War II landing of the Allies at Normandy, and have continued to discuss terms for peace in Ukraine mainly by telephone since then.
Thus, the pledges were made by and to the participants of this “Normandy” meeting, yet there isn’t a formal document with their signatures.
While the original Russian document now being described as “the Minsk package” has the signatures of the so-called “People’s Republics” leaders Aleksandr Zakharchenko and Igor Plotnitsky on the document, they weren’t in the summit talks between Putin and Poroshenko — a fact that gave rise to many of the political cartoons for this meeting:
The Telegraph reported that top Kremlin official Vladislav Surkov, known as the Kremlin’s “grey cardinal,” believed to be in charge of Ukrainian issues, was seen leaving Independence Palace to meet with Zakharchenko and Plotnitsky and brief them on the talks.
There is not yet an official OSCE English translation or explication of this issue of the gap between the “Normandy” format and the “Trilateral Contact Group” which included representatives of the self-proclaimed “Donetsk and Lugansk People’s Republics” in the past.
An informal English translation is available from the Kyiv Post.
Zakharchenko and Plotnitsky were unhappy not to be included in the summit, and according to a source reported by TASS, refused to sign a “Normandy format” document.
According to TASS, the two Russian-backed militant leaders, as well as former president Leonid Kuchma and Viktor Medvedchuk, a prominent Ukrainian politician, who were in the “Trilateral Group” talks in the past, looked at the document prepared by the “Normandy” four after a 16-hour meeting that went overnight, and refused to sign it.
So that may be why the “Minsk package” is now a document with their signatures on it — plus some verbal pledges — and a Russian wire service report that ties them together.
— Catherine A. Fitzpatrick