Topics of the Week
Sputnik V begins the registration process with EMA, while Hungary proceeds with a purchase order.
European Parliament calls for a halt to the Nord Stream II project.
Biden administration orders an intelligence assessment of Russian meddling.
Protests and corruption report place Kremlin on defensive.
Good Old Soviet Joke
Question for Radio Yerevan: We heard that the apartments in the Moscow Olympic village are made of micro-concrete. Can you tell us more about this new building material?
Answer: Well, micro-concrete is basically 10 % concrete and 90 % microphone.
Policy & Research News
Sputnik V begins registration process with EMA, while Hungary proceeds with purchase order
The Russian Direct Investment Fund (RDIF) announced that they have filed for registration of the “Sputnik V” COVID-19 vaccine with the European Medicines Agency (EMA). In the tweeted announcement, the Sputnik developers stated that they had held a scientific review with the EMA on January 19th, and that review of the documentation would be expected in February. The story was widely reported, although with a degree of scepticism given that it had not yet appeared on the EMA’s list of vaccines under review. In a statement, the EMA clarified that “at this stage, the developer has submitted a request for scientific advice to the Agency.” Such a request is made in order to help companies prepare for the next step in the process, the application for marketing authorization. The statement made it clear that “Sputnik V is not undergoing a rolling review”, and that the EMA would communicate if the rolling review process begins.
If this sounds familiar, it is because Russian news agency Interfax reported in late November 2020 an RDIF announcement that they had applied to the EMA for approval of Sputnik V. However, a Czech report soon afterwards noticed that the RDIF statement mentioned the “European Medical Association”, a professional association of doctors based in Brussels but unaffiliated with the EU medicines regulator. While it isn’t clear whether this was merely a typo or translation error, it is possible that the RDIF is only now applying to the ‘correct EMA’ given that they are making largely the same announcement two months later.
Despite the regulatory review process only beginning, Hungary has become the first EU member state to sign a deal with Russia purchasing large quantities of Sputnik V. Hungary’s drug regulator has already unilaterally approved the Oxford-AstraZeneca and Sputnik V vaccines, while neither have yet been approved by the EMA. Hungarian Foreign Minister Peter Szijjarto made the announcement during a briefing in Moscow that his government would purchase two million doses of Sputnik V in three tranches, enough to inoculate one million people.
While Moscow has said that the Sputnik V vaccine is 92% effective at preventing COVID-19 infections, scientists have raised concerns about the breakneck speed of its development, and the lack of access to the full dataset for trials.
The European Parliament calls for a halt to the Nord Stream 2 project
On January 21, the European Parliament responded to the arrest of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny by adopting a non-binding resolution calling on an ‘active stance.’ Parliamentarians urged the EU to ‘immediately stop the completion of the controversial [Nord Stream 2] pipeline.’ Manfred Weber, leader of the European People’s Party – the largest political party at European level – specifically pressed Germany to halt the Gazprom-controlled project. The EU response follows a US decision to sanction the Russian company KVT-RUS and designate its pipe-laying ship Fortuna blocked property on January 19. However, despite concerns that Moscow could use the completed pipeline for political leverage, Angela Merkel has so far maintained that Germany will not abandon the project.
Meanwhile, the Fortuna is proceeding to construct the final 150 kilometres of pipeline in the Baltic Sea – despite sanctions. Danish authorities had initially cleared the project to go ahead on January 15. However, in light of recent sanctions, a Gazprom Eurobond prospectus has alluded to “risks associated with changes in political conditions,” which could potentially result in the Nord Stream 2 “project being suspended or discontinued.”
The Biden Administration Orders Intelligence Assessments on Russian Meddling, Indicates that it Will Seek to Renew the New START Treaty
Newly-inaugurated President Joe Biden has ordered an intelligence assessment of Russian disinformation and meddling efforts, including an investigation into the recent SolarWinds hack; reports that Russia had placed bounties on US soldiers in Afghanistan; interference in the 2020 election; and the use of chemical weapons against Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny. Avril Haines, Biden’s new director of national intelligence, also indicated during her confirmation hearing that her department will be tracking foreign influences on domestic extremist groups. This news comes as White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki stated that the Biden administration has offered to extend the New START treaty with Russia for five more years. So far, the Kremlin has signalled that they would cooperate with the United States on the Treaty’s extension.
US Members of Congress Introduced a Bill in the House of Representatives Intended to Target Foreign Disinformation and Propaganda Efforts
The re-introduction of the Foreign Agent Disclaimer Enhancement (FADE) Act is part of a bipartisan effort to attempt to address the spread disinformation and propaganda on social media. This follows a significant spike of disinformation surrounding the presidential election and COVID-19 pandemic. The bill would build on the existing Foreign Agents Registration Act, which requires that political ads and foreign-funded posts on social media be reported to the US Department of Justice. The FADE act would require the inclusion of disclaimers on foreign agent-funded political content on social media in the US. The bill was previously introduced by Reps. Abigail Spanberger (D-VA) and John Katko (R-NY) last year, where it did not make it out of committee. As of January 15, 2021, it has been referred to the House Committee on the Judiciary.
Kremlin’s Current Narrative
Raising the Stakes: Protests and Corruption Report Place Kremlin on Defensive
Within 24 hours of arriving in Russia, Kremlin critic, Alexei Navalny was remanded in custody for 30 days. The arrest has drawn fire from many in the international community, while also sparking a backlash from the public, who were quick to arrange protests for Saturday in at least 85 cities.
Prior to the protests, Russia had attempted to prepare. The Russian Attorney General’s Office had ordered the state censorship agency, Roskomnadzor, to restrict access to websites, while the Main Directorate of the Ministry of Internal Affairs of Russia warned that law enforcement would respond immediately to any uncoordinated public events. In addition to this, the Kremlin was forced to defend against allegations of corruption, levelled at Putin by the detained critic Navalny.
Navalny and his Anti-Corruption Foundation (FBK) had released a report on corruption schemes, which features details of a €1.1 billion property allegedly owned by President Putin. At the time of writing, the video has been viewed over 80 million times, triggering a host of denials by Russian state officials, including Kremlin Spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, who stated that the report is “an outstanding myth”. The senior official struck a similar tone when discussing the protests.
Despite Peskov insisting the Kremlin does not fear mass protests, the Moscow Times reported that police had detained over 3,500 people. Also keen to come to the support of Putin was Andrei Turchak, Secretary of the General Council of United Russia, who called the protests an attempt by the West to harm Russia. This narrative was supported by Russian Foreign Affairs Spokeswoman Maria Zakharova, who accused the West of hypocrisy, arguing that the West differs in their assessments of protests when they are conducted in Russia. Headlines in state-run Russian media seconded these comments.
RT echoed statements made by Russia’s Foreign Ministry regarding perceived hypocrisy. While Sputnik chose to focus on comments made by Dmitry Peskov, in which he suggested the US embassy had made “inappropriate statements,” calling them “an outright interference in our domestic affairs.” In essence, the protests have shown that on Saturday, the will to mobilize remains with the population of Russia. What is less clear is whether the Kremlin’s response has served to dampen further displays of dissatisfaction in the weeks and months to come.
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.