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.
Recent Analysis and Translations:
– NATO Got Nothing From Conceding To Russia In the Past, Why Should It Cave To The Kremlin Now?
– Who is Hacking the Russian Opposition and State Media Officials — and How?
– Does it Matter if the Russian Opposition Stays United?
At a recent meeting of U.S. ambassadors from Russia and Europe in Washington, U.S. ambassadors to several European countries complained that Russian intelligence officials were constantly perpetrating acts of harassment against their diplomatic staff that ranged from the weird to the downright scary. Some of the intimidation has been routine: following diplomats or their family members, showing up at their social events uninvited or paying reporters to write negative stories about them.
But many of the recent acts of intimidation by Russian security services have crossed the line into apparent criminality. In a series of secret memos sent back to Washington, described to me by several current and former U.S. officials who have written or read them, diplomats reported that Russian intruders had broken into their homes late at night, only to rearrange the furniture or turn on all the lights and televisions, and then leave. One diplomat reported that an intruder had defecated on his living room carpet.
In Moscow, where the harassment is most pervasive, diplomats reported slashed tires and regular harassment by traffic police. Former ambassador Michael McFaul was hounded by government-paid protesters, and intelligence personnel followed his children to school. The harassment is not new; in the first term of the Obama administration, Russian intelligence personnel broke into the house of the U.S. defense attache in Moscow and killed his dog, according to multiple former officials who read the intelligence reports.
State Department spokesman John Kirby confirmed that the harassment has grown worse since the annexation of the Crimea in 2014 and says the issue is raised “at the highest levels” repeatedly.
“The problem is there have been no consequences for Russia,” said Rep. Mike Turner (R-Ohio), who serves as president of the NATO Parliamentary Assembly. “The administration continues to pursue a false narrative that Russia can be our partner. They clearly don’t want to be our partner, they’ve identified us as an adversary, and we need to prepare for that type of relationship.”
“Diplomacy is based on reciprocity. The more the US damages relations, the harder it will be for US diplomats to work in Russia,” she said.
Journalists have also been routinely harassed in Russia in a variety of ways, including by the “camera crew surveillance” tactic.
Steve Rosenberg of the BBC found himself a target of the method in February 2016.
Luke Harding, a journalist for the Guardian who worked in its Moscow bureau, writes in Expelled: A Journalist’s Descent into the Russian Mafia of how he and his family were frequently targeted.
One day he returned home to find the window in his young son’s room, which he usually kept shut for safety reason, had been left deliberately opened. He also found a tape left playing in a cassette player which he hadn’t left on and later an alarm clock he hadn’t set went off in the middle of the night.
“The Kremlin’s relationship to the press is very dependent on the Soviet Union’s diplomatic relations with the United States. If there is no communication, the reporters suffer. They get the dirty end of the stick.”
— Catherine A. Fitzpatrick
The state-owned TASS news agency reports that Nikita Belykh, the governor of the Kirov region who was arrested on suspicion of bribe-taking at the end of last week, has declared a hunger strike.
According to TASS, Belykh gave “official notice” to the authorities at the Lefortovo pre-trial detention center (SIZO) in Moscow, that he was beginning a hunger strike this morning.
His lawyer, Vadim Prokhorov, said:
“This morning, before my arrival, Belykh gave notice to the head of the SIZO of the beginning of his hunger strike as mark of protest against the charges made against him, and also due to the fact that his wife and brother have still not been allowed access to him.
Belykh categorically denies that he received a bribe, insisting on his innocence.”
— Pierre Vaux
As we reported, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan made an expression of regrets to Russia that fell short of an actual apology for Turkey’s shooting down of a Russian fighter jet near the Syrian border last November. The pilot ejected but was later killed by militants.
“The tragedy in Istanbul is terrible. First of all, deep and most sincere condolences to the relatives of those killed. The threat of this form of terror is terrible precisely because anyone may become its victim.
The Turkish leaders’ version of events, of the possible involvements of IS militants, seems most likely. These are not Kurds who are so feared in Ankara. And all the more obvious is the danger of any steps by Turkey itself in some form of support or another of any terrorists, including buying oil or providing them opportunities for medical treatment, rehabilitation or training. Help to radicals is always a boomerang, which the Americans who ‘cultivated’ Bin Laden in their day as a weapon against the USSR can confirm.
Now versions of events are recalled, that exactly two years ago, June 29, 2014, the ‘Islamic State’ announced the creation of the so-called ‘caliphate’ with its own laws and government bodies. But that’s not the only point. The terrorist act was clearly aimed as well against the attempts of the Turkish leadership to smooth relations with Russia and Israel. Judging from everything, Turkey is being ‘warned’ so that it does not take part in the formed united anti-terrorist front, created by the forces, above all, of Russian diplomacy.
As for the return of Russians to Turkish beaches, that was premature even without Istanbul. It’s not even a question of the fact that we are only at the very beginning of the path of restoring normal relations. It’s just that the terrorist threat as before is great, and therefore many Europeans who had not spoiled relations with Turkey have not not traveled there. Well, and as for the dialogue of our leaders — I am confident that the terrorist act will not move it apart but rather bring it closer. Because, despite everything, we are in solidarity with the people of Turkey today.”
“Terrorist attacks are always an intimidation method. In Turkey terrorists want to sow chaos, completely destabilize the situation, something that naturally worries Russia,” the parliamentarian has told TASS commenting on the blasts that rocked the Istanbul Ataturk airport on Tuesday. “Attempts to stir up Turkey from inside undoubtedly wreak havoc on the Middle East region as a whole,” he added.
— Catherine A. Fitzpatrick
The Kremlin has changed the English translation of the text of the letter from Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan so as to diminish the implication that it is an apology, Novaya Gazeta and RBC reported.
As we reported on Monday, June 24, in order to begin to amend relations with Russia, which have badly deteriorated since Turkey shot down a Russian fighter near the Syrian border last November, President Erdogan sent a letter to Russian President Vladimir Putin, described as an “apology” by world media.
The Kremlin propaganda site RT made much of the gesture.
But a spokesman for Erdogan subsequently told Reuters that the Turkish leader had not apologized as such but had expressed regret and asked the pilot’s family to “excuse us.”
A clarification was made in the Turkish and some Russian media that Erdogan’s “apology” was not immediately directed to Putin, but to the family of the airman killed after he jettisoned from the Su-24 and was shot dead by militants. Turkey is to pay some compensation for the death.
“I once again express my sympathy and profound condolences to the family of the Russian pilot who was killed and I apologise to them.”
RBC found a copy of this original in Google cache (no longer available) and took a screen shot:
But the text was subsequently changed to say, “I am saying, ‘Excuse Us.'”
This expression in English is similar to the Russian expression Izvinite, which conveys regrets but not apology.
Putin and Erdogan were scheduled to hold a telephone conversation today and TASS reported this morning that it would take place “as planned.”
But late last night, there was a terrorist attack on Ataturk Airport in Istanbul in which at least 36 people were killed and 146 injured, the BBC reported. Prime Minister Binali Yildirim said early signs suggested ISIS was behind the attack. It is not clear now if the phone call will go ahead as scheduled.
Erdogan said the attack should serve as a turning point in the global fight against militant groups, the BBC reported:
“The bombs that exploded in Istanbul today could have gone off at any airport in any city around the world,” he said.
Russia has halted planes to Turkey, RBC reported.
— Catherine A. Fitzpatrick