The shocking news about the staged murder of journalist Arkady Babchenko made headlines in both Russian and international media where opinions were polarized as usual. This news cycle overshadowed other important developments in Russia, such as the St. Petersburg Economic Forum with Putin trying to exploit current transatlantic rifts, and the purges in the regional elite that set the stage for his fourth presidential term.

 

The news about Arkady Babchenko's resurrection was met with mixed emotions around the world. Photo: Sergei Bobylev | TASS.

 

  1. Babchenko’s Death and Resurrection 

The story: On May 29, the news broke that Russian opposition journalist Arkady Babchenko had been killed at his home in Kiev. However, the Ukrainian special services later revealed that the killing was part of a sting operation aimed at capturing the assassin. [Republic]

  • The sting turned out to be a success: the hitman was arrested and remains in custody. [New Times]
  • While most observers were relieved to hear the journalist is alive, the implications of this bizarre story remain unclear.

The context:

  • The crucial part of the story is that the killing was allegedly ordered by the Russian security services (Babchenko is an outspoken and even radical critic of the Russian government and the Putin regime). This version was put forward by the security services of Ukraine (SBU), which organized the sting operation.
  • Some observers in both Ukraine and Russia note that the operation was set up to bolster the SBU and assert its capabilities in the conflict with Moscow. [RBC]
  • Russian officials predictably rejected the accusations as “nonsense” and “utterly cynical” [RIA]
  • The operation was criticized by Reporters Without Borders, the Committee to Protect Journalists, and editors of some Western media [Meduza, Voice of America]

Implications:

  • Alexander Baunov, Moscow Carnegie Center: the SBU used Babchenko in a controversial operation to trigger a major news cycle for its own PR purposes. While the world is fighting fake news, Ukraine creates one on a global scale with no long-term results.
  • Manipulation of the truth by the Ukrainian authorities undermines their credibility and creates a foundation for conspiracy theories. It doesn’t necessarily mean that the Russian security services were not involved in the hit, but it levels Kiev and Moscow in terms of trustworthiness.
  • The sting also caused further polarization inside the Ukrainian political landscape already ridden by many rifts. [Carnegie.ru]
  • Vedomosti editorial points to the ethical side of the sting, which in itself is not “Ukrainian knowhow,” but a traditional covert op. Meanwhile, the massive media campaign surrounding this fake news further blurs the thinning line between what is true and what is not.

 

  1. The Russian Davos 

The story: This week marked the 2018 St. Petersburg International Economic Forum—known colloquially as the “Russian Davos.”

  • During the forum, French President Emmanuel Macron made his first official state visit to Russia. Vladimir Putin played on the theme of solidarity between Russia and the EU, if only to maximize the widening gap between the U.S. and Europe.
  • Members of the government and the business community also aired a number of announcements.  

The breakdown:

  • First Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Anton Siluanov announced:
    • a forthcoming tax reform for oil and gas companies after more than two years of disputes;
    • the creation of a special six-year fund for infrastructure investment in 2019 which could exceed 3 percent of GDP—a program specifically linked to the May Decree’s promise for accelerated economic growth;
    • and suggested a redistribution of income tax in favor of the poor, which was  sharply contested by Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin.
  • Lukoil and Gazprom agreed to establish a joint venture to develop fields in an autonomous area of the Arkhangelsk region. Meanwhile, French company Total will acquire a 10 percent stake in Novatek’s Arctic LNG 2 project to build a pipeline for liquified natural gas from the Russia to Europe. [Vedomosti

What it showed:

  • Kirill Martynov, political commentator: Macron radiated optimism about France’s relationship with Russia and the importance of mutual respect and sovereignty. But Macron comes from the EU, where a series of major scandals have severely harmed Russia’s reputation.
  • When the French president refers to the importance of sovereignty, he is recalling Putin’s own speeches about Russia sovereignty, and also requesting that Russia not interfere in French and European elections. But like other questions at the forum about the MH17 crash and the assassination of Sergei Skripal, Macron’s point falls on deaf ears. [Novaya Gazeta]
  • Vladimir Frolov, expert on international relationsDonald Trump pushed the U.S.’ European allies directly into the arms of Putin when he pulled out of the Iran deal.
  • While this could be an opportunity to set some guidelines for international security—i.e., SyriaIran and Ukraine—Russia is not going to negotiate with Europe. Despite the presence of international leaders like Macron and Shinzo Abe at the forum, Putin remained evasive and did not offer anything concrete. [Republic]

 

  1. The Governors Purge 

The story:This week, Vladimir Putin continued to set the course for his fourth presidential term by conducting some “purges” in the regional elite’s ranks.

  • Since mid-2017, Putin has appointed new governors in at least 14 regions, including some young technocrats. The new acting governors flesh out an even better picture of who will lead in the September 9 gubernatorial elections, leaving little electoral intrigue. More replacements will likely continue up until September.

Dig deeper:

  • The governor of the Sakha Republic (formerly Yakutia), Yegor Borisov, and the governor of Magadan, Vladimir Pechyony, voluntarily resigned. Promptly afterward, Putin appointed Aysen Nikolayev, the former mayor of Yakutsk, and Konstantin Nosov, the former mayor of Nizhny Tagil, as acting governors in Sakha and Magadan, respectively. New leaders were also appointed in the regions of Tyumen, Yamal-Nenets, Amur and Altai.

What it means:

  • Experts say that Borisov’s resignation was expected—the Kremlin was long dissatisfied with the instability emanating from the Sakha Republic, where Borisov had poor relations with the local elites and where Putin received the lowest support in the presidential election—64.4 percent. [RBC]
  • Alexander Kynev, political scientist: the appointment of Nikolayev to the Sakha Republic was logical and expected. The Sakha Republic is the largest region of Russia and home to a large number of ethnicities. Nikolayev is a seasoned, strong and independent manager, an indigenous leader and active in United Russia. [Kommersant]
  • Mikhail Vinogradov, political scientist: The most obvious purpose behind the additional gubernatorial reappointments is Putin’s desire to preserve power and stability. It’s a departure from the Medvedevian renewal of the 2012 government—Medvedev is not engaged in personnel decisions now, but rather concentrated on barring Alexei Kudrin and Andrei Belousov from the Russian White House since the new government formed. [New Times]

 

Other stories that mattered this week (in Russian):

  • Citizens didn’t believe Putin’s promises”: according to Russia’s Public Opinion Foundation study, the majority of Russians think that the 2012 May Decrees were not implemented, and the same fate awaits Putin’s latest decrees. [New Times]
  • “Not Moscow”: being a vast and diverse country, Russia is often seen through a “Moscow lens.” InLiberty releases several stories detailing what the country looks like in different regions, including Kaliningrad, Yekaterinburg, Novosibirsk, and Khabarovsk.
  • A call to confess: What looms for Russia after the Netherlands’ and Australia’s accusations”: This week the two countries officially called Russia responsible for the downing of flight MH17 in 2014. Lawyer Gleb Bogush explains the legal meaning of this development for Russia and what may happen next [Republic].

 

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