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The Real Russia. Today. How Russia started recruiting hackers, a green light for a pension referendum, and America's proposed ‘crushing sanctions’

Meduza
13:23, 8 august 2018

Wednesday, August 8, 2018

This day in history. On August 8, 2008, Russian warplanes started bombing Georgian troops in South Ossetia, taking complete control of the airspace above Tskhinvali.
  • How Russia’s war in Georgia sparked Moscow’s modern-day recruitment of criminal hackers
  • Federal officials say a referendum on raising Russia's retirement age would be legal
  • Belarusian investigators detain another five journalists
  • Moscow court awards 247.5 million rubles to Russian Authors' Society
  • In Helsinki last month, Putin asked Trump to continue talks on arms control
  • Washington is considering sanctions against Russian billionaire Vladimir Yevtushenkov
  • Russian newspaper leaks draft text of U.S. Senate's Defending American Security from Kremlin Aggression Act
  • Anonymous election promotion in Samara depicts non-voters as gay men

How Russia started recruiting hackers 👾

On the night of August 8, 2008, Georgian troops started shelling Tskhinvali, the capital of South Ossetia, and then began their assault on the city. Within a few hours, Russia’s armed forces entered Georgia, leading to a five-day war that cemented South Ossetia’s secession. The conflict was fought not only on Georgian soil, but also in cyberspace, where Russian hacker groups hijacked the websites of Georgian news outlets and state agencies. This was the moment when Moscow first turned its attention to Russia’s so-called “patriotic bloggers,” and started relying systematically on their services, which were provided both voluntarily and compulsorily. Meduza special correspondent Daniil Turovsky looks at the history of Russia’s cyberwar with Georgia, and traces its links to the hacking of the Democratic Party in the United States and the arrest of several Russian Federal Security Service agents in 2016.

A green light for a referendum on pensions? 🧓

Russia’s Central Election Commission says three groups’ proposals for national referendums on a plan to raise the country’s retirement age are perfectly legal. One of these initiatives comes from Ilya Sviridov (the Just Russia party’s mayoral candidate in Moscow), another is from the Communist Party’s branch in the Altai Territory, and the third is being promoted by the Moscow branch of the All-Russian Union of Public Organizations for Large Families. A referendum on pension reform will be triggered as soon as one of these groups registers 43 regional divisions and then collects two million signatures in support of the initiative (with no more than 50,000 endorsements in a single region).

According to sociological studies, roughly 89 percent of Russia’s population opposes the plan to raise the retirement age. The last time Russia held a national referendum was in 1993.

Tough times in Belarus 👮

On August 8, Belarusian investigators detained another five journalists on suspicion of stealing paid news services from the state news agency BELTA. A day earlier, officials detained nine reporters (and then released four) in the same case. Police have spent the past two days searching the office of the news website TUT.BY.

Robbing the writers ⚖️

A Moscow court has awarded 247.5 million rubles ($3.8 million) to the Russian Authors' Society (RAO) in its lawsuit against Sergey Fedotov, the nonprofit’s former director. RAO represents the interests of 26,000 Russian writers and roughly two million authors and rights holders around the world.

In June 2017, Fedotov was convicted of large-scale fraud, after he illegally transferred RAO assets to benefit an organization that he created. Fedotov confessed to the crime and went free from jail in December 2017.

Russkies and Yankees

🕊️ Business as usual

Vladimir Putin presented Donald Trump with a series of requests during their private meeting in Helsinki last month, including new talks on controlling nuclear arms and prohibiting weapons in space, according to a Russian document obtained by Politico. “The memo points to a surprising normalcy in the priorities that Putin brought to the meeting, which included a willingness to extend a series of landmark nuclear treaties and pursue new weapons limits.” Read the story at Politico.

🍑 Clench your buttocks, Yevtushenkov

The U.S. State Department says it will explore the possibility of imposing sanctions on Vladimir Yevtushenkov, the billionaire majority owner and chairman of the Sistema Russian conglomerate, in retaliation for the company’s projects in Crimea and Uzbekistan. After U.S. Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen shared the news on Twitter, shares in Sistema dipped on the Moscow stock exchange, before rebounding slightly. In May, Sistema denied having any projects in Crimea or Sevastopol.

In April, the U.S. Treasury Department imposed sanctions on several prominent Russian businessmen, including Oleg Deripaska and Viktor Vekselberg, who later turned to the Kremlin for state assistance.

👊 “Crushing sanctions”

The newspaper Kommersant has published a full draft of the proposed “Defending American Security from Kremlin Aggression Act,” which demands a U.S. investigation into Vladimir Putin’s personal wealth and whether Russia sponsors terrorism, and would impose a ban on U.S. citizens buying Russian sovereign debt, though the U.S. Treasury publicly opposed this idea in February, warning that it would disrupt the market broadly. Republican Senator Lindsey Graham, one of the initiative’s sponsors, says one of the draft legislation’s goals is to impose “crushing sanctions.”

What’s considered Russian sovereign debt? The restrictions would apply to bonds and new foreign exchange swap agreements with a maturity of more than 14 days issued by Russia’s Central Bank, the National Welfare Fund, the Russian Federal Treasury, and any agents or affiliates of these institutions.

Kommersant’s August 8 publication of the U.S. legislative initiative knocked the ruble’s exchange value to its lowest point since November 2016, though the text had been circulating among insiders for at least a week.

Banning the banks. The draft bill proposes banning Russia’s biggest state banks — Sberbank, VTV Bank, Gazprombank, Rosselkhozbank, Promsvyazbank, or Vnesheconombank — from operating inside the United States, which would effectively prevent these institutions from conducting dollar settlements.

Oil and gas. In the energy sector, the legislation would impose sanctions on investment in any projects by the Russian government or government-affiliated companies outside Russia worth more than $250 million. Businesses would also incur penalties for any participation (funding or supplying equipment or technology) in new oil projects inside Russia valued above $1 million.

Lists and research. If the bill is submitted in its current form and adopted, the U.S. president would have 180 days to begin implementing its provisions; within 60 days of adoption, the White House would need to provide a new list of Russian individuals suspected of cyber-attacks against the United States; the Treasury Department would have 180 days to update its “Kremlin list” of Russian state officials and oligarchs; the director of national intelligence would be tasked with completing a “detailed report on the personal net worth and assets” of Vladimir Putin and his family; and the State Department would have 90 days to determine whether Russia should be designated as a state sponsor of terrorism.

A new Sanctions Office. In order to shore up the 2017 Countering America's Adversaries Through Sanctions Act, the draft legislation would also create an “Office of Sanctions Coordination” within the State Department to coordinate work with the Treasury.

No homo 🏳️‍🌈

Russian election season has inspired another anonymous call to the polls, this time representing non-voters as gay men. A video that started circulating in Samara earlier this month shows two men walking through the city, complaining about the authorities and the uselessness of voting. At the very end of the video, the men disrobe and begin what promises to be a passionate embrace. The one-minute clip ends with the text “September 9,” when cities across Russia will hold local elections. Anti-corruption activist Alexey Navalny was the first to draw national attention to the video, the origins of which are still unknown.

Similarly anonymous election ads popped up ahead of the March 2018 presidential election, including one that partly triggered homophobes.

Yours, Meduza