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.
Imprisoned Russian nationalist Aleksandr Belov (Potkin) says the FSB is persecuting him because he refused to collaborate with them to commit corporate raids and terrorist acts in Ukraine.
– Alexey Navalny On the Murder of Boris Nemtsov
–Theories about Possible Perpetrators of the Murder of Boris Nemtsov
–Novaya Gazeta Releases Sensational Kremlin Memo: âIt is Seen as Correct to Initiate Annexation of Eastern Regions of Ukraine to Russiaâ
See also our Russia This Week stories:
– 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)
– Ultranationalists Angry over âCapitulationâ of Minsk Agreement
Please help The Interpreter to continue providing this valuable information service by making a donation towards our costsâ.
The Russian economy imploded late last year, and perhaps nowhere was this more obvious than the value of the Russian ruble. One year ago the ruble was trading at about 35.14 to a US dollar. Using Bloomberg’s data, at one point on January 30, 2015, however, the ruble hit 70.80 to a dollar, a record low.
But as we can see, the ruble has recovered since then. Today it is trading at 57.73 per USD — bad, but not the disaster it was just a few months ago. Yesterday Business Insider ran this analysis:
Analyst Timur Khairullin at VTB24 said that the ruble’s “firm dynamic” was being bolstered by both external and internal factors.
Among them is that fact the time for firms to pay their taxes in the country has only just passed meaning there has been a spike in demand for the ruble.
Also Khairullin said the bump could have been helped by the promise by President Vladimir Putin of an amnesty — now being considered by parliament — to try to encourage vast sums being stashed overseas to be repatriated to Russia.
Neil Shearing at Capital Economics said that the most important factor has been the “stabilisation and then rebound in oil prices”, but added that the extent of the ruble’s earlier plunge was likely an overreaction in the first place.
Why has oil stabilized? The war in Yemen, and continued violence in other areas of the Middle East and North Africa, have temporarily raised prices. But this is only temporary. It’s a simple question of supply and demand, and since supply is outpacing demand, a trend which shows no signs of reversing, oil is not expected to rally for long. In fact, USA Today has just published an analysis that suggests that the U.S. is running out of places to store oil. Once oil reserves are at full strength, much of that oil will once again return to the market, potentially driving prices downward again.
The surplus oil goes into storage, with 8.2 million barrels stocked away last week, EIA figures released Wednesday show. Oil inventories are the highest in at least 80 years. The industry is using about 67% of the 520 million barrels of working storage capacity across the nation, up from 48% in early 2014. Much of the tanks are filled by traders who buy oil at today’s contract price of about $48 a barrel, store it, and sell futures contracts to deliver the crude in a year at higher price, turning a profit after paying storage costs.
In Cushing, Okla., the nation’s delivery point for such swaps, 80% of the region’s 71 million barrels of storage space is occupied, up from 24% in October. That means it’s close to effective capacity because a portion of the tanks is earmarked for moving oil in and out each day, while some is set aside for grades of crude that may not match customer needs.
“More oil is being stored (in Cushing) than ever before,” says Hillary Stevenson, manager of supply chain networks for Genscape, a research firm that surveys oil inventories. “They are getting very full.”
Brian Busch, Genscape’s director of oil markets, expects Cushing’s tanks to reach their limit by late April or early May.
— James Miller
“For massive heroism and bravery, determination and courage, displayed by the personnel of the brigades in combat actions in defense of the Fatherland and state interests under conditions of armed conflicts, and taking into account its merits in peace time.”
Although the place and time of this combat was not indicated in the decrees, the question was raised as to whether the units had fought in Ukraine.
Russian presidential administration spokesman Dmitry Peskov denied that the honored units had fought in Ukraine, and claimed their merits were earned in the Soviet period or in the Caucasus.
The units were not in the list prepared by RBC.ru of Russian armed forces confirmed as having fought in Ukraine when the bodies of some of their members who had died in combat were returned to Russia.
But InformNapalm, an independent site researching Russian armed conflict in the Eurasian region, said they had covered it last year:
Blogger Irakly Komakhidze said in an article in Russian for InformNapalm that according to information from activists in Buryatia, Russia, a flight with “Cargo 200” — the Russian military term for the bodies of soldiers killed in combat — arrived in January of this year in the Buryat Republic’s capital of Ulan Ude. According to local reports, these were the coffins of 20 Russian soldiers from Buryatia who were in the 11th Separate Assault Guards Brigade of the Airborne Troops which is based in a village called Sosnovy Bor [Pine Tree Stand] (nick-named “Sosnovka”).
The 11th brigade was deployed together in Rostov with paratroopers from the 76th Air Assault Brigades of Pskov in a mixed division or battalion tactical group, and had suffered heavy losses from Ukrainian artillery.
In these cases, as with other soldiers, the servicemen had been discharged from the regular army and evidently then signed contracts as volunteers.
This article also reported that soldiers in the 5th tank brigade in Ulan Ude who were also deployed in mass numbers to Rostov rebelled and tore up their contracts. “Not in a single unit in the RF has such a massive refusal to fight against Ukraine occurred,” said Komakhidze.
The information is difficult to verify because no names of deceased soldiers are given or links to social media or news accounts of grieving relatives or funerals. The picture used with the InformNapalm article is taken from a Russian movie called Cargo 200 made in 2007.
On January, Roman Yermolin, an officer of army unit No. 31583 refuted the claim about Buryats deployed in Ukraine (translation by The Interpreter):
“We as official representatives of the Armed Forces can
state that our troops have not bee on the territory of others countries
and will not be on them. The training that is being conducted along
the borders is in accordance with planned training both by the minister
of defense as well as the commander-in-chief, that is, the president.
The trainings took place, they took place in the border zones of Rostov
Region, Belgorod Region and so on. They were planned, they ended, and
all the servicemen returned to their units, to their divisions.”
Yermolin said that either the information about the “Cargo 200” was false, or could have involved soldiers who died while patrolling the border.
But it is the 5th tank brigade from which came the 20-year-old Buryat tank driver Dorzhi Batomunkuev, severely burned in a battle on February 19 in Logvinovo, outside Debaltsevo. He gave an interview to Yelena Kostyuchenko of Novaya Gazeta in which he described how he was conscripted into the regular army on November 25, 2013 and then signed a three-year military
service contract (enabling him to be deployed outside his region) on
The article attracted more than a million views and became emblematic of Russia’s secret war against Ukraine in which increasingly, Russians soldiers are wounded or killed.
AFP has now also covered the story and cited Sutyagin, saying that the three units fought in Ukraine and the awards were a “morale boost” for Russia’s airborne forces:
“Both air assault brigades fought in Ukraine,” Sutyagin, a senior research fellow in Russian Studies at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), a British think tank, told AFP.
“Both of them even suffered losses — and not small ones,” said Sutyagin, who was jailed in Russia for passing information to a UK firm before being handed over to the West in a 2010 spy swap.
— Catherine A. Fitzpatrick
The Ministry of Culture fired Boris Mezdrich, director of the Novosibirsk Opera Theater for refusing to close a performance of Richard Wagner’s Tannhäuser. The opera opened in December 2014, but then began to receive complaints in January 2015.
About 3,000 religious believers demonstrated last week at the opera house saying the work was offensive to the faithful. Metropolitan Tikhon of the Russian Orthodox Church has appealed to the prosecutor of Novosibirsk Region to open a case against the opera directors under Art. 158 (“offense of religious feelings of believers”).
Vladimir Kekhman, director of the Mikhaylovsky Theater in St. Petersburg and a fruit importer has replaced Mezdrich, and will combine directing of both theaters.
Mezdrin received notice of his dismissal on March 29 from Vladimir Aristarkhov, deputy minister of culture. Theater director Timofey Kulyabin had staged the version of Tannhäuser which last month drew the ire of the Moscow Patriarchate of the Russian Orthodox Church after Metropolitan of Novosobirsk Tikhon flied a complaint.
The ruling United Russia party also demanded the removal of the opera due to its “desecration” of the image of Jesus, which was depicted on the thighs of Venus.
After the Pussy Riot case of 2013, a law on offense to believers was passed with a jail sentence of three years. Aristarkhov made a statement to the press after delivering the Ministry of Culture orders to fire Mezdrin and install Kekhman (translation by The Interpeter):
It is impermissible on state budget funds to stage a performance that violates moral foundations and brings schism into society. Nothing was done to remove the tension, nothing was done to settle the conflict and we were not heeded. A director is a creator, but the director of a state theater must think about what he is staging and have responsibility.
The implication was that Mezdrich could have removed some scenes and made a public apology in order to keep his job.
In an outpouring of protest from figures who tend to stay out of current controversies, Lev Dodin, head of St. Petersburg’s Maly Theater; Mark Zakharov, director of Lenkom Theater; Valery Fokin, General and Artistic Director of The Meyerhold Centre in Moscow and the Artistic Director of the Alexandrinksy Theatre in St. Petersburg; and others wrote letters of protest against Mezdrich’s dismissal.
Kekhman made a statement to the press (translation by The Interpreter):
“As a person who is a believer, who is baptized, and Russian Orthodox, as a Jew, I perceive this as an offense.”
Kekhman is known for canceling a performance of the Russian classic Eugene Onegin and firing director Aleksandr Sokurov, after which the art director Yelena Obratsova also left. Kekhman is also credited with saving the Mikhailovsky Theater from bankruptcy in 2007 after he attracted Vladimir Putin to a concert performed by the Give Life Foundation, who then arranged a 137 million ruble ($2.3 million) grant through 2015.
Kekhman is famous for being one of the three largest Russian importers of bananas who survived the 2008-2009 economic crisis, only to declare bankruptcy in 2012. At that time Interior Ministry investigators had opened an embezzlement case against Kekhman upon an appeal from Sberbank, but the case has evidently stalled.
— Catherine A. Fitzpatrick
Presnensky Court in Moscow has partially accepted a libel lawsuit filed by Russian Rails CEO Vladimir Yakunin against the New York Times, RBC.ru reported.
The court said the publication about Yakunin “did not correspondent to reality” but did not penalize the New York Times.
Yakunin’s lawyer Aleksei Melnikov said he viewed the outcome as “positive” and that while the paper was not ordered to print a retraction, he hoped it would do so.
Meanwhile Galina Arapova, attorney for the New York Times in Moscow, said the decision was more favorable for her client (translation by The Interpreter):
“It does not oblige the American company to do anything. For Yakunin, essentially this means the case is lost.”
The article in question by Peter Baker, titled “Sanctions Revive Search for Secret Putin Fortune,” cites a diplomatic cable leaked by WikiLeaks filed by US diplomats:
In one cable, for instance, diplomats cited a General Electric executive working in the region who privately said that Mr. Yakunin, the president of the state-owned Russian Railways, “has made sizable cash payments to Putin” and estimated that the Russian leader was worth “well over $10 billion.”
— Catherine A. Fitzpatrick
Bloggers have been reported fresh graves that appeared between July and September 2014 outside of Rostov-on-Don, a city of more than 1 million people in the south of Russia near the Ukrainian border.
Rostov has served as a military staging area for supplying the Russian-backed separatists in the Donbass and for preparing Russian invasions of Ukraine.
The location is here on Google Maps to the east of Rostov, near the town of Temernik, named for the Temernik River.
The coordinates have been found on Google Earth.
We can confirm that on Google Earth, if you set the slider on the timeline to July 1, 2014, the area has only some woods and a field, but if you move it to September 28, 2014, what appear to be numerous graves with markers become visible.
Some pro-Kremlin bloggers have claimed that the pictures shown are from 2002, but that’s only the end point for the slider, which shows Google Maps. Google Earth was made available to the public in 2004. As indicated, these screenshots are from the Google Earth view indicated for dates in 2014.
Looking at Wikimapia, a Google map that has been marked by local people with landmarks, we can see the following locations: Severnoye (Northern) Cemetery, the Old Village Cemetery, the site of fresh graves believed to hold Russian soldiers who were
killed in Ukraine, a World War II-era trench, and a military base.
The Severnoye Cemetery is the second largest cemetery in the European part of Russia in terms of number of people buried per hectare. Russian Wikipedia says as many as 50 people a day are buried here.
Back in November 2014, Censor.net published pictures reportedly taken of this grave by a local blogger, Aleksandr Okolita. The graves are marked with the Cyrillic letters “НМ” which means Neizvestniy Muzhchina, “Unknown Male”.
But the link to Okolita’s Facebook no longer works and he removed the content.
It appears that the administrator of this group is the person who originally took the pictures. Here is his account (translation from The Interpreter):
Today the administrator of Misanthropic Division #1 visited the North City Cemetery in the city of Rostov-on-Don. Information about the new mass graves was confirmed. Beside the graves of unknown people, there are some with names, and the dates of death fit into the period June-September 2014. The date of death is missing on some although it is clear that they were buried at the same time, they were dug all at once with an excavator. There were none older than 55, the main mass of graves were from ages 30-35, about one third were 25-30. These graves are at the edge of the cemetery with an excellent view on to officers’ homes which are being built there, as if hinting at the connection between the generations. While Ukrainian warriors are buried as heroes, Putin’s lame dicks are ditched like dogs. These were still lucky. Each one got his 88!
Update: Originally we thought the figure in this last line might be a reference to the dimensions of the graves, since they appeared to be in a uniform size. But there is some speculation that it could be a reference to the phrase “Heil Hitler,” expressed with the number 88 by neo-Nazi groups. Misanthropic Division is an international neo-Nazi movement whose Ukrainian branch is affiliated with the Social-National Assembly (SNA), as Anton Shekhovtsev has reported.
Some of the group’s members are skeptical but the administrator points out that the graves were dug at the same time. Possibly they were related to the Battle of Ilovaisk in which some 300 Russian soldiers were said to have died.
Here are some of the pictures published by the Misanthrope Division administrator:
The Misanthrope Alliance administrator who went to make these photographs also wrote in his post of a “bonus” — and included a photo of the grave of Vanya Oglov who died in 1990, which is a landmark. He took that photo of an old grave near the fresh ones.
Panoramio has a photo of the exact same grave of Vanya Oglov with geolocation, which leads to the same area as the fresh burial ground.
In some social media accounts, this story and pictures are being
mixed with another grave found in Odessa but the pictures shown here are
What we can conclude is that Google Earth satellite views now
confirm the pictures taken on the ground by a local blogger, who also
said the persons buried seemed to be mainly males of combat age.
But to confirm that the men buried here were Russian soldiers who died in combat in Ukraine, more research would be needed.
— Catherine A. Fitzpatrick
memorial that friends and supporters of slain opposition leader Boris
Nemtsov had made for him on Bolshoi Moskvoretsky Bridge, just a hundred
meters from the Kremlin’s wall.
Translation: I came to the bridge, the police had got there before me. Some idiots in plainclothes or some gopniki [thugs used by police] carried away all the flowers and candles from here.
The Moscow mayor’s office said that while they could not allow a permanent memorial on the site, they had not given orders to clear the area, RBC.ru reported.
The clean-up followed a defacement of the memorial earlier on Friday by a group of Russian nationalists who defiantly posted their pictures to social media.
By Saturday morning, the site was completely cleared of flowers, posters and a sign that said “Nemtsov Bridge” — which is how supporters would like to rename the site.
Video blogger Sasha Sotnik interviewed people at the site who said they would maintain a watch to keep the memorial in place.
The signs say “Boris’” which means “Fight!” in Russian, and is a play on the name “Boris” which is spelled similarly.
— Catherine A. Fitzpatrick
Imprisoned “Russian March” organizer Aleksandr Belov (Potkin), former head of the Movement Against Illegal Immigration has given a sensational interview made by his supporters to prominent Russian blogger Oleg Kashin, claiming that Russian intelligence officers began persecuting him after he refused their demand to collaborate with them in corporate raids and even terrorism and murder in Ukraine, slon.ru reports.
Slon.ru reports that Potkin, who was arrested last year right before the nationalists’ annual Russian March, said the Federal Security Service (FSB) promised to “leave him in peace” if he would perform certain assignments for them, even the murder of a figure in Ukraine believed to be oligarch Igor Kolomoisky, who recently resigned as governor of Dnepropetrovsk Region under pressure from Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko.
The Interpreter has translated an excerpt of the interview published by Kashin:
“Finally I realize that the FSB had no interests in national security. All the offers and questions amounted to a wish to involve me in raiders’ seizures of Russian companies and participation in terrorist activity on the territory of Ukraine and France. At least, the promise to leave me in peace (and people who are connected to me in one way or another) was given under the condition that we resolve the question of Boroda [Beard] (we had a dispute about who was referenced here; there is a theory that this is Rabbi Boroda, but I believe Boroda is what they called Kolomoisky, he is bearded–Kashin). There was talk of organizing liquidations, murders, or lobbying for the arrest of Igor Kolomoisky on French territory.
Apparently after they realized I wouldn’t take part in such projects, they decided to offer me up as a sacrifice to [Kazakh President Nursultan] Nazarbayev, taking into account concerns about my possible participation in any popular demonstrations against the policy of the RF government. After all, Russian intelligence agencies today are forced to fulfill any request of the aging dictator since Kazakhstan’s position on Ukraine depends on him and the future of the crippled child of Vladimir Vladimirovich [Putin] called the Customs Union. Simultaneously mercantile interests were decided involving corrupt bureaucrats and officers of Russian intelligence; after all, in the eastern tradition, Kazakh ‘interested parties’ lavishly grease the machine of the justice and court system so that it goes in the direction needed.”
Potkin said that had he followed along with the FSB’s plans, they would have left him and those connected to him in peace.
TV Rain reports that Potkin’s lawyer also says his client’s arrest was related from his refusal to take part in “illegal actions” in Ukraine including the removal of Ukrainian political leaders.
Potkin is accused of money-laundering and also “propaganda of exceptionalism, superiority or inferiority of citizens on the basis of their affiliation to religious, class, national, birth or racial origin” under Kazakh law. The charges, which relate to advocating Russian separatism in Kazakhstan, have not been formally made. Slon.ru covered Potkin’s business and political activities in Kazakhstan last October. Potkin is currently in the Matrosskaya Tishina federal detention center. He is accused of laundering $5 billion stolen from depositors of the BTA Bank by former owner Mukhtar Ablyazov.
A French court rejected Ablyazov’s petition to stop the extradition to Ukraine and Russia from a French prison, and French authorities are now likely to send him to Russia. BTA Bank accused Ablyazov of embezzling billions of dollars and won “massive judgements” against him, the Wall Street Journal reported. He was accused of lying under oath and violating an asset-freezing order. He fled Britain in 2012 and was arrested in the south of France a year and a half later.
Potkin was sent for psychiatric evaluation at the Serbsky Institute, known in the Soviet period and still today as providing politically-motivated diagnoses. He is currently in solitary confinement.
As he said in the interview:
“If you speak of my case, then it is undoubtedly politically motivated. As can be seen from the notices provided by the Department for the Protection of the Constitutional Order of the Federal Security Service (UZKS FBS) to the Investigative Department of the Interior Ministry, I am a dangerous anti-state element. I am closely connected with the leftist, rights, and liberal opposition, with officers of the US and West European diplomatic missions, and with Right Sector in Ukraine. And since I supposedly planned to flee to a country in Europe where I intended to ask for political asylum, I had to be immediately held. It was these notices that became the basis for conducting special activities regarding me to detain and arrest me.
I think that the main reason for the negative attitude toward me on the part of the intelligence agencies and the government administration of the RF is their complete inability to understand that you can be involved with politics even if no one pays you and no one orders you to do anything. Fear in lack of understanding of any independent and non-controlled position forces them to step up repression.”
There is nothing to confirm Potkin’s story, which may be a desperate bid to gain support. Evidently Kashin didn’t think it was fabricated, however as he decided to publish it.
Last year, slain opposition leader Boris Nemtsov made a videotaped statement in defense of Belov, saying that while their views differed, he knew him to be a peaceful dissenter and that the case against him was fabricated. He called him a political prisoner.
This kind of story is something of a classic in the annals of Soviet and Russian persecution. It’s believable for many Russians precisely because of the ubiquitous presence of intelligence in their lives and the prevalence of efforts to co-opt people as informers against others and to serve as accomplices in the FSB’s own operations.
Recently, such a claim of retaliation was made by Ilya Goryachev, the Russian ultranationalist and leader of BORN (Battle Organization of Russian Nationalists) arrested for multiple murders. Last December, he said that his arrest was allegedly revenge by the FSB for his refusal to collaborate with them before his departure from Russia to Serbia.
Nothing short of a credible defection by an FSB agent would help confirm these stories. Belov’s story about the plot against Kolomoisky strains credibility; if the FSB were going to engage in sensitive operations to disrupt and destabilize Ukraine (and there is evidence that they do this) it does not seem likely they would risk involving suspects they’re putting under pressure — given that they might refuse and wind up speaking to bloggers like Kashin.
When Kommersant correspondent Grigory Tumanov wrote for Slon.ru about Belov and his last meeting with another Russian nationalist, Dmitry Dyomushkin before his arrest in October 2014, the name of Kolomoisky was not mentioned, although “the murky project of the FSB in Ukraine” was referenced.
While the FSB might find it useful to do its dirty work via criminal suspects over whom it has some leverage, it seems unlikely they would use a Russian nationalist suspected of money-laundering for a high-profile assassination when they have their own trained agents and other trusted volunteers.
Even so, currently the FSB appears to be carrying out a “purge” of nationalists who would not cooperate with the Kremlin, and there may be truth to some elements of Potkin’s story.
Last week searches were carried out in St. Petersburg against several nationalists even as a widely-covered international conference of far-right European parties and Russian nationalists led by the Rodina [Motherland] party was held.
As Paul Goble wrote in his column syndicated by The Interpreter last week, Dyomushkin, who heads the Russkiye [Russians] ethno-political
“…the Kremlin simply persecutes nationalists, and
the force structures threaten them independent of the position of the
nationalist on any particular question [such as Ukraine]. You can even glorify
Putin, but this is no guarantee that you won’t be arrested or treated
illegally. One must love Putin only with permission.”The
Russian nationalist activist was recently subjected to the eighth search of his
residence and person by the security agencies, one that involved 12 officers
and lasted seven hours. They found
nothing because “what could be found after seven earlier searches had taken
place?” It was simply a form of harassment, he says.
Tumanov also wrote last year that Dyomushkin said the FSB had asked him to help recruit fighters for the “Novorossiya” cause in the Donbass.
— Catherine A. Fitzpatrick