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The Real Russia. Today. Bellingcat tracks down Russia's military intelligence officer in eastern Ukraine, plus Telegram's ‘human shield‘ defense

Meduza

Friday, May 25, 2018 (Meduza's newsletter will return on Tuesday, May 29. Happy Memorial Day, Americans!)

  • Denials and accusations from Russia, the Netherlands, Australia, the U.S., the EU, and NATO follow new MH17 findings by JIT and Bellingcat
  • Russian reportedly sets a surface-to-air missile-test world record
  • Sberbank's head says he fired an uppity analyst who clearly didn't leave behind his sensationalist journalistic ways
  • Russia's censor says Telegram is treating the rest of the Internet like a “human shield”
  • An Emergency Management Agency official in Kemerovo is charged with criminal negligence and embezzlement, following a deadly fire
  • Evgeny Roizman is officially no longer Yekaterinburg's mayor
  • A former “Bolotnaya Square Case” suspect is attacked in Moscow
  • Another Navalny activist lands in jail
  • Elon Musk has made quite the splash in Russia
  • Meduza reviews Sergey Loznitsa’s new film about the war in eastern Ukraine
  • Meduza on Europe's General Data Protection Regulation

The MH17 blame game goes hypersonic 🇪🇺🇷🇺🇺🇦🇺🇸🇦🇺🇳🇱

Moscow says again: hey, it wasn't us

Following the latest investigative findings that the Russian military was responsible for shooting down Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 over Ukraine in 2014, the Russian military has issued its latest denial that it was involved in the tragedy. In a statement on Friday, the Defense Ministry said the missile engine’s unit number, which indicates that it was manufactured outside Moscow in 1986, proves that the weapon fired at flight MH17 wasn’t in the Russian military’s arsenal, because Russia’s armed forces decommissioned and scrapped all 1986-generation missiles in 2011. The ministry pointed out that Ukraine didn’t receive a single new missile for its Buk missile system after 1991, suggesting that it would likely have needed to rely on older Soviet munitions.

The Kremlin says: hey, listen to our Defense Ministry

Later on Friday, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov endorsed the Defense Ministry’s position. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov compared the MH17 case to British allegations that Moscow is responsible for poisoning former spy Sergey Skripal — another charge widely believed in the West that the Kremlin denies.

Bellingcat says: hey, we found your guy, Moscow

On Friday, May 25, Bellingcat said it had established with high certainty that a Russian military intelligence officer named Oleg Ivannikov (known by the aliases “Andrey Ivanovich” and “Orion”) supervised the procurement and transport of weapons across the Russian-Ukrainian border from 2014 to 2015, during which time flight MH17 was shot down. From 2006 to 2008, Ivannikov served as the defense minister of the breakaway republic of South Ossetia. In eastern Ukraine, he allegedly coordinated the activities of the “Wagner” Russian mercenary group and acted as a liaison with the self-declared Lugansk People’s Republic.

In a press conference on Thursday, the Joint Investigative Team stated what has become obvious for many observers around the world: the Buk missile that shot down flight MH17, killing all 298 people on board, was fired from a Russian military unit. The announcement on May 24 pinned the deadly incident on Russia's 53rd Anti-Aircraft Missile Brigade. Open-source researchers at Bellingcat had already identified the same brigade as the likely source of the missile.

The Europeans, the Americans, the Australians, and NATO say: HEY

The Netherlands and Australia announced on Friday that they now formally hold Russia responsible for the downing of flight MH17. “We call on Russia to accept its responsibility and cooperate fully with the process to establish the truth and achieve justice for the victims of flight MH17 and their next of kin,” said Dutch Foreign Minister Stef Blok.

The United States government has also endorsed the Joint Investigative Team’s findings, saying in a statement on Thursday: “It is time for Russia to cease its lies and account for its role in the shoot down.” On Friday, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said, “I call on Russia to accept responsibility and fully cooperate with all efforts to establish accountability, in line with United Nations Security Council Resolution 2166,” which demands that those responsible for the downing of flight MH17 are held to account and that all states cooperate fully with efforts to establish accountability. The European Union issued a similar statement, “calling on the Russian Federation to accept its responsibility and to fully cooperate with all efforts to establish accountability.”

Meanwhile, here's a missile Russia is still happy about 😅

Russia has “quietly” conducted the world's longest surface-to-air missile test, sources in U.S. intelligence told CNBC. According to the report, an S-500 surface-to-air missile system successfully struck a target 299 miles away, which the U.S. assessed is 50 miles farther than any known test. Read the story at CNBC here.

Shooting the messenger at Sberbank 🛢

German Gref, the head of Sberbank, insists that he didn’t fire an analyst and his supervisor for political reasons. Speaking to the magazine RBC at the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum, Gref said he got rid of Alex Fak and Alexander Kudrin because he was shocked by the “inconsistency of their conclusions and the facts” in a recent report that says the chief beneficiaries of Gazprom’s export pipeline projects aren’t Gazprom’s shareholders but the contractors hired to build them, which happen to be companies controlled by some of Vladimir Putin’s closest friends.

Gref says he asked Sberbank SIB to provide him with the documents on which it based its report, but he says he never received anything. Gref linked Fak’s alleged analytical messiness to his past as a journalist. (Before joining Sberbank CIB in 2008, he was a columnist for The Financial Times and Reuters.)

What happened to Alex Fak? On May 22, Sberbank SIB fired him for “gross ethical violations,” and then it fired his supervisor. The report on Gazprom leaked to the media on May 21, though it was intended only for Sberbank CIB’s clients. Fak (and another analyst who’s managed to keep her job) predicted that Gazprom’s pipeline projects will lose lots of money. The “Power of Siberia” will supposedly cost $55.4 billion, which is more than Gazprom can recover in export sales to China, leading to an estimated $11 billion in losses, Fak concluded.

Read the whole story at Meduza: “A Russian financial analyst criticized Rosneft for accruing debts and Gazprom for losing money to Putin’s friends. Now he’s out of a job.”

Telegram's “human shield” defense 🛡

Alexander Zharov, the head of Russia’s federal censor, Roskomnadzor, said on Friday at the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum that the government’s decision to block the instant messenger Telegram is justified because federal agents have reliably established that all recent terrorist attacks in Russia and the near abroad were coordinated through Telegram. Zharov also accused Telegram of using other online services as “human shields” by redirecting its traffic to their servers and forcing Roskomnadzor to disrupt a wide array of websites, when it cuts access to the new IP addresses Telegram adopts. Zharov claimed that Telegram’s functionality has degraded by 15 to 30 percent in Russia, thanks to Roskomnadzor’s efforts, which he says are ongoing.

Zharov added that the Federal Security Service has expressed similar concerns about the push-to-talk walkie-talkie app Zello, which Roskomnadzor banned in April 2017, when Zello refused to store all application messages and user data in Russia.

Dirty emergency responders 🔥

Officials in Kemerovo, where a fire at a shopping mall killed 60 people in March, have detained the regional head of the Emergency Management Service, Alexander Mamontov, on charges of criminal negligence and embezzlement. He’s one of several emergency workers named as a suspect in the investigation launched after the deadly fire on March 25. Officials say the local Emergency Management Service authorities failed to inspect the “Winter Cherry” mall for fire safety between 2017 and 2018. Mamontov is also accused of embezzling more than 1.8 million rubles ($29,000) from the agency’s regional budget. Investigators working the “Winter Cherry” case have already arrested eight people, including one firefighter who responded to the blaze.

What’s it like being a Russian firefighter? How does the Federal Emergency Management Service oversee the country’s firefighting? Read Meduza’s special report: “‘It’s not easy telling parents that their child is dead’: Four Russian firefighters talk about saving lives and taking the blame”

So long, Roizman, and thanks for all the independent mayorship 👋

Evgeny Roizman is officially out as Yekaterinburg’s mayor. On Friday, May 25, the city council accepted his resignation, which Roizman announced on Tuesday, saying that he refuses to be a part of the regional government’s decision to suspend direct mayoral elections in the city. In the same session, a majority of city council members also approved the abolition of direct mayoral elections.

Roizman won Yekaterinburg’s close mayoral race in September 2013. Most of the administrative power in the city rests with its appointed “city manager,” however — a role that currently belongs to Alexander Yakov.

The hard knocks of life as a Russian oppositionist

🎯 Years later, still a target

A former suspect in Russia’s infamous “Bolotnaya Square Case” was beaten up in downtown Moscow on Thursday evening. Nikolai Kavkazsky, a human rights activist and a member of the liberal opposition party Yabloko, says several people attacked him near the Revolution Square subway station.

Police detained Kavkazsky in June 2012, shortly after violence broke out at an anti-Putin protest in Moscow. (Independent observers and demonstrators say the police provoked the clashes.) Kavkazsky spent almost 18 months in jail, until he was amnestied in December 2013 with two other “Bolotnaya Square Case” suspects (Maria Baronova and Vladimir Akimenkov). In 2017, the European Court of Human Rights awarded him 10,000 euros (almost $12,000) in compensation for violations of his rights during his detention and trial.

👮‍♂️ Another Navalnyite nabbed

It wouldn’t be a day of news without another one of Navalny’s people landing in jail, and the Moscow legal system doesn’t disappoint. On Friday, the Tverskoi District Court sentenced Anti-Corruption Foundation staffer Nikolai Lyaskin to 15 days behind bars for helping to promote the May 5 anti-Putin protests. He was initially detained on May 5 and held in police custody for two days, before being released to await his trial.

Some other Navalny figures recently detained by police: YouTube channel news anchors Elena Malakhovskaya and Ruslan Shaveddinov, and Anti-Corruption Foundation lawyer Ivan Zhdanov. Alexey Navalny and his press secretary, Kira Yarmysh, were recently jailed for 30 days and 25 days, respectively, also for organizing “unpermitted” rallies on May 5.

What happened on May 5? Across the country, police detained more than 1,600 demonstrators, including 158 minors. On May 15, Alexey Navalny was sentenced to 30 days in jail for organizing the “illegal” rallies. On May 23, the Moscow City Court rejected Navalny’s appeal.

Elon Musk in Russia 💰🚀

Elon Musk now watches over a street in Chelyabinsk, where a local “urbanist” group has painted his portrait on a transformer box as part of a new beautification campaign. The Russian activists chose the South African-born American billionaire, says “Chelyabinsk Urbanist” founder Lev Vladov, because they see him as a living legend and one of the few people alive today who’s “pushing humanity forward.”

On May 23, SpaceX and Tesla founder Elon Musk announced the creation of a website “where the public can rate the core truth of any article and track the credibility score over time of each journalist, editor, and publication.” He said he’s thinking of calling the project “Pravda.”

Musk no doubt has in mind the Soviet Union’s most notorious newspaper, which is owned today by Russia’s Communist Party. The modern-day Pravda, incidentally, knows who Musk is. In 2016, the news outlet published two stories about the South African-born American billionaire.

A new movie about the war in eastern Ukraine 🎥

Sergey Loznitsa’s new film “Donbass” was screened at this year’s Cannes Film Festival. The film shows life in the self-declared Donetsk and Lugansk Peoples’ Republics both during and after the war's most violent phase in 2014 and 2015. Meduza’s film critic, Anton Dolin, says the movie won’t please many Russian and Ukrainian viewers, but that doesn't make the motion picture any less frightening, paradoxical, or outstanding.

About GDPR

You’re no doubt as sick of these four letters as we are, but alas Meduza is a European company and we, too, must abide by Europe’s new data-protection regulations. And to that end, we’ve drawn up two documents for your reading enjoyment, explaining how we store your data and why we want your cookies (and what these things are).

Yours, Meduza