Topics of the Week

Nord Stream II edges towards the finish line as Gazprom’s monopoly is potentially threatened in the Balkans.

Investigation of the SolarWinds hack revealed that the breach was larger than first believed, and most likely of Russian origin according to the intelligence services.

The Storming of the U.S. Capitol according to the Russian state media.

Good Old Soviet Joke

Do you know which athletes from Eastern Europe regretted the most that they couldn’t go to the Olympics in Los Angeles?

Those who have already sold out their furniture.

Policy & Research News

Navalny arrest sours relations with Europe as protests in Russia loom

Russian opposition leader, Alexei Navalny, was detained on arrival at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo airport this weekend. Navalny has been a source of tension in European Union (EU) relations with Russia after he survived an assassination attempt orchestrated by Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB) last summer. The EU sanctioned Russia and Russia responded with entry bans on EU institutions and European officials. This weekend, the German Ministry of Justice transferred Navalny’s interrogation transcripts to Russia and stressed that “the German government assumes that the Russian government will now immediately take all necessary steps to clarify the crime against Mr Navalny.” 

The EU and its member states have condemned Navalny’s present detention. Ursula von der Leyen, President of the European Commission, stated that “detention of political opponents is against Russia’s international commitments.” Charles Michel, President of the European Council, called the arrest “unacceptable.” National governments also issued statements, with Germany suggesting that Russia “violates the principle of the rule of law.” Meanwhile, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania called on the EU to respond with additional sanctions. So far, Russia’s response has been dismissive. A Russian Foreign Ministry statement advised critics not to “encroach on national legislation of sovereign states and address problems in your own country.” Foreign Minister Lavrov reiterated that European responses were intended to distract from domestic problems in the West.

The arrest may have exacerbated EU-Russia tensions and could inspire protests in Russia. While in custody at a Moscow police station, Navalny released a video message urging supporters to organise mass protests against the government. With Russian legislative elections scheduled for September 2021, the Kremlin will be vigilant to developments in the days and weeks ahead.  

European Court of Human Rights to adjudicate on Russian human rights violations in Crimea

Last week the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) issued a decision on the ongoing case Ukraine v. Russia (re Crimea). The court determined that Ukraine’s complaints against alleged Russian human rights violations in Crimea in 2014 are “partly admissible.” A judgement will follow at a later date. The court – of which both Ukraine and Russia are members – will not consider the legality of Russia’s annexation of Crimea, but recognises that Russia has effectively controlled the peninsula since February 2014. Among other allegations, Ukraine maintains that Russia is responsible for prohibiting public gatherings, unlawful detention, and persecution of Crimean Tartars. This is the latest of several cases that Ukraine has brought against Russia before the ECHR since 2014.       

Both Russian and Ukrainian officials issued reactions to last week’s decision. Ukrainian Minister of Justice, Denis Malyuska, described the court’s conclusion as a “powerful legal blow to the mythology used by Russia in the hybrid war” and Ukraine’s Foreign Minister, Dmytro Kuleba, called it “an important step towards bringing Russia to legal responsibility for aggression against Ukraine.” Meanwhile, Russia’s Ministry of Justice emphasised that “accusations brought by the Ukrainian authorities against the Russian Federation were not proven” and that allegations including the purported existence of an “administrative practice of killing and shooting” was deemed inadmissible. Russia has acquiesced to past ECHR judgements. However, last summer’s constitutional amendments stress that Russian law takes precedence over international norms, which may have an impact on how Russia receives the ECHR’s forthcoming ruling.  

US Developments

US Treasury Department Imposes Sanctions Against Ukrainians Linked to Andrii Derkach and Rudy Giuliani

The sanctions, imposed on January 11th, target seven individuals and four entities that are linked to pro-Russian Ukrainian lawmaker Andrii Derkach. The Treasury Department previously imposed sanctions on Derkach related to foreign interference in the 2020 election. Two of the individuals sanctioned, Andrii Telizhenko and Kostiantyn Kyluk, assisted President Trump’s personal lawyer Rudolph Giuliani personally in his efforts to gather information and force government investigations into both President-Elect Biden and his son, Hunter Biden. Another notable individual sanctioned on January 11th is Oleksandr Dubinskiy, a current member of parliament, part of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy’s Servant of the People party. Andriy Yermak, the head of the Ukrainian President’s administration, tweeted that the Zelenskiy administration “will do everything in its power to hold those responsible for meddling in U.S. elections.”

The FBI is Investigating a Woman Who Stole a Device from Nancy Pelosi’s Office and Intended to Sell it to Russian Intelligence Agencies

The claim was included in an affidavit describing the criminal case against Riley June Williams, a resident of Pennsylvania who took part in the January 6th insurrection of the Capitol building. The affidavit alleges that Williams stole a laptop or hard drive from Speaker Pelosi’s office, and eventually intended to sell it to the SVR, Russia’s foreign intelligence service. Pelosi’s deputy chief of staff confirmed the laptop’s disappearance following the insurrection at the Capitol but alleges that it was “only used for presentations.” The sale of the device, according to the affidavit, fell through for unknown reasons. Williams’ case remains under investigation, according to the FBI, and she is currently charged with entering a restricted building and disorderly conduct. In videos of the insurrection posted online, Williams is seen entering the Capitol building and directing rioters towards Nancy Pelosi’s office. Williams was arrested on January 18th in Pennsylvania, according to the Department of Justice.

Kremlin’s Current Narrative

A New Year, a New START?

The New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) was originally signed April 8, 2010, setting a limit on the strategic nuclear arsenals of both the US and Russia. Now, only weeks remain until the treaty expires on February 5th. With increasing mutual distrust between the US and Russia, it is in the interest of both states to renew the accord.

Russia has been keen to extend the New START Treaty. Late last year, Vladimir Putin proposed an extension, saying at a meeting of his security council, “I have a proposal — which is to extend the current agreement without any pre-conditions at least for one year to have an opportunity to conduct substantial negotiations.” However, while the Trump administration had also been keen to include China in the treaty, it was the failure to freeze “all nuclear warheads” for the year period that led to the US calling the proposal a “non-starter.”

In mid-November, after the Trump administration rejected Putin’s offer, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov hosted an interview with Russian and foreign media. He not only expressed frustration with the Trump administration but argued that the best strategy moving forward would be to bide their time. He reasoned that due to, “the current commotion in the United States caused by the ongoing vote recount, lawsuits and other perturbation, we cannot expect any coherent proposals,” before stating, “we will wait until the dust settles.” The desire to negotiate further was echoed by Anatoly Antonov, the Russian Ambassador to the US, who stressed that “I am ready to continue such negotiations.” It is of no surprise then, that this narrative has continued into this year. 

While media outlets such as RT have accused the U.S. of being an unreliable negotiating partner, Sputnik has quoted Mikhail Gorbachev, who noted: “during the election campaign, he [Biden] said that the agreement should be extended.” The article continues by highlighting Gorbachev’s insistence that, “if the United States and Russia really get started on this, that will be beneficial both for them and all the others.” Meanwhile, TASS make use of recent comments by Dmitry Medvedev, the deputy chief of Russia’s security council, who has been keen to note the positivity emanating from the Biden administration where START is concerned. They highlight Dmitry Medvedev as commenting, “election pledges to extend the START III treaty with Russia which Biden called ‘an anchor of strategic stability between the United States and Russia’, sound very optimistic.” Ultimately then, after the unpredictable foreign policy strategies of Trump, there may just be a measure of solace to be found in the policies of Biden.

Kremlin Watch is a strategic program of the European Values Center for Security Policy, which aims to expose and confront instruments of Russian influence and disinformation operations focused against the liberal-democratic system.