This week, experts continued to dissect the outcomes of the highly controversial Helsinki summit and its meaning for the Ukraine and Syria crises. In the meantime, pension reform is moving forward in Russia, despite Putin’s “disliking” its key provisions. Finally, the FSB is investigating an alleged leak of Russia’s newest hypersonic technology to the West. In a bonus section, we focus on the state of affairs in the Russian civil society.

 

A Mikoyan MiG-31 supersonic interceptor aircraft with the Kh-47M2 "Kinzhal" air-launched ballistic missile during the drills on July 19, 2018. This week it was reported that Russian supersonic technology had been leaked to the West. Photo: TASS.

 

  1. Trump-Putin Summit: What Was Said on Ukraine and Syria

The crumbs: With little known about what was said behind closed doors during Trump and Putin’s tête-à-tête in Helsinki last week, experts explore the snippets of what is publicly available to assess questions on Ukraine and Syria.

On Ukraine:

  • At the post-summit press conference, Putin’s only public statement on Ukraine was that the U.S. and other parties involved in the Minsk accords should cooperate on implementing them.
  • However, sources within the Russian government told RBC that Putin allegedly asked Trump to consider the opportunity of holding a referendum in the Donbass. Three days later, Putin spoke to representatives and ambassadors in the Foreign Ministry behind closed doors, mentioning the referendum and saying that it should be carried out under the control of the UN.
  • This referendum apparently isn’t another “Crimea scenario”—that is, it wouldn’t be a vote between joining the Russian Federation or independence. Rather, it would ask voters to voice their opinion on some level of autonomy for the Luhansk People’s Republic (LPR) and the Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR) of Ukraine.
  • DPR leader Alexander Kazakov said that a referendum was not on the republic’s agenda and pointed out multiple gray areas: Would only DPR residents participate, or all of Donetsk? How would the referendum define autonomy?
  • Either way, the referendum would have to be implemented by both Kyiv and the republics—it’s not Russia’s decision to make. Experts remain skeptical, particularly because Ukraine isn’t likely to grant the go-ahead, not least because the country is now preparing for its 2019 presidential elections. [RBC]

On Syria:

  • Mariana Belenkaya, Middle East expert:The Syrian issue was a central topic of the summit, as expected. But while both presidents spoke in favor of enhanced cooperation to help Syrian refugees return home, they failed to outline any concrete strategy.
  • Both Washington and Moscow want a quick end to the war in Syria, and to see terrorist threats decrease. But a huge point of contention is Iran—a trade partner Russian ally that also wants to see Syria return to the control of Damascus as soon as possible.
  • At the summit, Trump and Putin spoke on protecting the security of Israel, which had brought up the encroachment of pro-Iranian forces on its border. Russia has offered to enforce a buffer zone between the Iranian military and the Israeli border, but will not forcibly remove Iranian forces from Syria simply for the sake of the U.S. and Israel.
  • The week before the Helsinki summit, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Iranian advisor on international affairs Ali Akbar Velayati visited Moscow almost simultaneously, making it clear that Moscow will set the terms for any security measures that take place.
  • Russia also continues to claim that the U.S. and Israel have flirted with the armed opposition in Syria. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov stated that there would be no deals between Russia and the U.S on Syria until last year’s agreements on the de-escalation zone are implemented.
  • Since the summit, Putin has made a point when speaking publicly about Syria to discuss unfulfilled obligations, pinning the blame on the U.S. and its allies for the stalled peace settlement. [Carnegie.ru]

 

  1. The Burden of the Pension Reform

The story: Last week, Vladimir Putin finally made his first public comment on the controversial pension reform that had already brought his approval ratings down. In a staged televised conversation with World Cup stadium volunteers, he revealed that he didn’t like any of the proposals regarding the retirement age increase and alleged that a final decision on the reform had not yet been reached.

  • In the meantime, last week the Russian Duma passed the reform bill in the first reading. [Meduza]
  • At the same time, the reform backlash continues. This week, Russia’s Central Election Commission received a request to conduct a referendum on the retirement age increase. The initiative was pushed through by the Communist Party. [Interfax]

What Putin’s comments mean: 

  • Mikhail Vinogradov, political scientist: Putin was expected to speak about the reform in late August or early September, but his ahead-of-time reaction is a sensation.
  • Abbas Gallyamov, political scientist: Putin’s comments are contradictory. On the one hand, he said that the retirement age increase can be avoided, but on the other, that it is an unavoidable measure.
  • Other sources speculate that the reform will be passed with certain concessions as such initiatives always are. The Kremlin is already negotiating behind closed doors with the Ministry of Finance on easing some of the reform provisions. [Vedomosti]
  • According to the Ministry of Labor, the budget lacks 250 billion rubles ($4 billion) to index pensions for pensioners currently working. There are no additional resources at the moment to restore pensions indexation, which was suspended in 2016 [RBC].

Dig deeper: Levada Center sociologist Denis Volkov breaks down the recent polls showing that 89 percent of Russians disapprove of the pension reform.

  • According to his conversations with focus groups, the dominating sentiment among the respondents is that of injustice and perception of “another [government] ruse to strip people of their money.”
  • People mostly blame Dmitry Medvedev, Alexei Kudrin and some other officials, the Russian government overall, and the United Russia party.
  • Respondents also expressed fears of suffering poor health or dying before reaching the retirement age, as well as fears of losing their job and of an overall decline in living standards.
  • Respondents were especially irritated by the way the reform was introduced—with no prior discussion, as a fait accompli foisted on the public when all eyes were on the World Cup. [Carnegie.ru]

 

  1. Hypersonic Leak

The story: On July 20, the FSB searched two of the largest organizations of Roscosmos, the state corporation heading Russia’s space program: the Central Research Institute of Mechanical Engineering (TsNIIMash) and the United Space Missile Corporation (ORKK).

  • Viktor Kudryavtsev, a researcher at TsNIIMash, was arrested on July 22, accused of state treason. The FSB claims that Kudryavtsev leaked classified information on hypersonic technology to a country within NATO.
  • Dmitry Payson, the director of ORKK, retired on July 21.
  • Meanwhile, Dmitry Rogozin, the general director of Roscosmos, set up a special commission to assist the FSB in the criminal case, and to develop more robust security measures for Russia’s rocket and space industry. [Kommersant]

What is this hypersonic technology?

  • Alexander Goltz, military expert: the technology in question is likely the Russian nuclear-capable air-launched ballistic missile Kinzhal (“Dagger”), which was presented by Vladimir Putin on March 1, 2018. However, its details remain secret.
  • The development of hypersonic technology is the focus of today’s arms race. In this context, it is logical to assume that foreign intelligence is looking to see if Russia’s claims about successful tests of such missiles are a bluff. [Echo of Moscow]

Of note: According to military journalist Vasily Sychev, hypersonic weapons reach their target at least five times faster than the speed of sound; the faster ammunition flies, naturally the more difficult it is to intercept and destroy it.

  • Russia has been developing these weapons since the mid-20th century, mostly fueled by the Cold War arms race. Today, Russia’s Tactical Missiles Corporation and aerospace company MKB Raduga are also working on a new hypersonic missile, whose speed will exceed Mach six and flying range will reach 1,500 kilometers.
  • Russia is not the only one: the U.S., the UK, China, India, and Australia are working on their own hypersonic missiles. [Meduza]

 

Other stories that mattered this week (in Russian):

  • How much is Oleg Sentsov worth?”: Pavel Kanygin writes about Ukrainian director Oleg Sentsov, sentenced to 20 years in prison in Russia on trumped-up charges of terrorism. Since May 14, Sentsov has been on an indefinite hunger strike. On July 3, the Ukrainian government offered the Kremlin a deal: exchange 23 Russians imprisoned in Ukraine for military operations in Donbass for 23 Ukrainians imprisoned in Russia, including Sentsov. Moscow has not responded to the offer, and everyone is waiting for the Kremlin to name its price  [Novaya Gazeta].
  • Six people detained, the lawyer who released the video fled the country: On the investigation of the Yaroslavl tortures”: On July 20, Novaya Gazeta published a ten-minute video of a torture incident that took place in colony No.1 in Yaroslavl. A prisoner named Yevgeny Makarov is brutally beaten up and waterboarded by over ten prison guards. The video caused a great stir, and an investigation has been launched by the Investigative Committee. [TV Rain]
  • Between the government and the tsar-worshipper ideology”: Ksenia Luchenko discusses how the Russian Orthodox Church commemorated the 100th anniversary of the execution of Tsar Nicholas II and his family. [Carnegie.ru]

  

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