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The Real Russia. Today. More U.S. sanctions, 20 years of treason and espionage convictions, and another GRU bombshell

Meduza

Thursday, September 20, 2018

This day in history. On September 20, 2002, Sergei Bodrov Jr. died tragically at the age of 30 in an ice slide while filming in the Caucasus. Bodrov played the iconic protagonist Danila Bagrov in the films Brother and Brother 2.
  • Tell Meduza what you want out of this newsletter in a new survey
  • The U.S. sanctions Russia again, also nailing a Chinese entity for buying Russian weapons
  • New study looks at the past 20 years of Russia's treason and espionage cases
  • Here's how United Russia is punishing Natalia Poklonskaya
  • Bellingcat and The Insider drop another GRU bombshell
  • Columnist Karina Orlova on ‘00 Mr. Bean’
  • Amie Ferris-Rotman reports on ‘Putin the Pro-Choice Champion’
  • Brian Whitmore released new report on ‘Putin’s Dark Ecosystem: Graft, Gangsters, and Active Measures’
  • The New York Times publishes ‘The Plot to Subvert an Election: Unraveling the Russia Story So Far.’
  • Columnist Oleg Kashin speculates about why Pyotr Verzilov was apparently poisoned

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Sanctions, again 🚫

Washington added 33 entities and individuals to its sanctions list under the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act on Thursday. You can read the State Department’s whole press release here, but these are the three biggest takeaways:

  • The sanctions ban any transactions with Evgeny “Putin’s Chef” Prigozhin or his companies.
  • For the first time, the White House has imposed secondary sanctions on foreigners for dealing with Russia: Chinese entity Equipment Development Department (EDD) and its director, Li Shangfu, for buying from Russia 10 Su-35 combat aircraft in December 2017 and an initial batch of S-400 surface-to-air missile system-related equipment in 2018.
  • The sanctions against individuals target Prigozhin, Igor Korobov (the head of what used to be known as the GRU), Korobov’s deputy, 13 Russians indicted in February 2018 for interfering in U.S. elections, and 12 suspected GRU agents named in Robert Mueller’s investigation.

100 convictions and just one acquittal ⚖️

The human rights group Team 29 has released a new report about every known treason and espionage case in Russia’s criminal justice system over the past 20 years. An association of human rights lawyers and journalists, Team 29 has also provided legal assistance to several suspects in these trials. Meduza summarizes the report’s main findings. Here's a quick summary:

  • In the past 20 years, Russia has convicted roughly 100 people of treason and espionage
  • Of everyone charged with treason or espionage in Russia over the past two decades, courts have acquitted just one man 
  • In at least 23 cases involving treason or espionage charges, state-appointed lawyers or private counsels committed actions that harmed their clients
  • In at least 19 treason and espionage cases, state investigators apparently tried to falsify evidence
  • Russian laws are designed in such a way that the list of state secrets itself is classified
  • People convicted of treason or espionage are often sentenced to punishments “below the minimum”
  • At the same time, Russian legislation criminalizing treason, espionage, and the disclosure of state secrets has only gotten tougher
  • Russia tends to prosecute people for treason and espionage in accordance with Moscow’s foreign policy
  • Read the whole story here.

How United Russia is punishing Natalia Poklonskaya 😡

On September 20, the State Duma approved the decision to merge the Reported Incomes Monitoring Commission and the Ethics Commission. Otari Arshba, who chaired the latter group, will head the new amalgamation, leaving the former’s chairwoman, Natalia Poklonskaya, without a post on the new commission. For more than two months, Poklonskaya (who served as Crimea’s first post-annexation attorney general before joining the parliament) has been feuding with her own political party. In July, she was the only United Russia deputy to break ranks and vote against unpopular legislation that will raise the country’s retirement age.

Bellingcat and The Insider drop another GRU bombshell 💣

Bellingcat and The Insider can confirm definitively that both ‘Alexander Petrov’ and ‘Ruslan Boshirov’ are active GRU officers. This conclusion is based both on objective data and on discussions with confidential Russian sources familiar with the identity of at least one of the two persons. [...] There can be little doubt that both Shishmakov/Shirokov, and ‘Petrov’/’Boshirov’ acquired their cover passports under the same, restricted procedure — and in the same batch of sequence numbers — available to secret service officers. [...] Bellingcat and The Insider have obtained ‘Petrov’‘s and ‘Boshirov’s border crossing data for a number of countries in Europe and Asia, for the period of validity of their international passports (mid-2016 through today). [...] A source in a Western European law-enforcement agency informed Bellingcat that Petrov and Boshirov were arrested on the territory of the Netherlands. No information was provided as to the time and context of such arrests.”

🐒 Opinion commentary

In a Facebook post republished on Ekho Moskvy, columnist Karina Orlova jokes that the scandal surrounding Petrov and Boshirov is more “Mr. Bean” than “James Bond,” spinning the pair’s misadventures into a representation of all the bizarre and unbelievable behavior by the Russian authorities. Orlova cites Viktor Zolotov’s recent “duel” challenge to Alexey Navalny, Security Council Secretary Nikolai Patrushev’s belief that Madeleine Albright’s subconscious wanted to jettison Siberia from the Russian Federation, Oleg Deripaska’s dalliance with “Nastya Rybka,” and much more.

“Even Orwell never dreamed of this stuff,” she argues, comparing modern-day Russia to “a monkey holding a grenade.” That, Orlova says, is exactly how the world sees Russia: “it’s funny, but it’s also dangerous.”

More Russia reporting from other outlets 📰

👶 How the Christian Right learned to stop worrying about Putin’s liberal views on abortion

“To maintain its alliance with the Russian Orthodox Church and support among ‘traditional values’ conservatives at home and abroad, the Kremlin has given the impression it agrees with Russia’s campaign against abortion rights. Yet, as so often in Russia, not all is as it seems — and many choose to see what suits them,” writes Amie Ferris-Rotman in a new report on “Putin the Pro-Choice Champion.”

🎯 Hit or miss measures

CEPA Russia Program Director Brian Whitmore explores what accounts for the “relative success of the Putin regime’s political warfare in some places and not in others” in a new report titled “Putin’s Dark Ecosystem: Graft, Gangsters, and Active Measures.” The study’s premise is that “Russian active measures seem to be more successful in Latvia than in Estonia or in Lithuania,” and “Kremlin disinformation campaigns appear to gain more traction in Hungary and Slovakia than in the Czech Republic and Poland.”

📚 The Russia story so far

The New York Times has released a monstrously long story titled “The Plot to Subvert an Election: Unraveling the Russia Story So Far.” Here’s the tagline: “For two years, Americans have tried to absorb the details of the 2016 attack: hacked emails, social media fraud, suspected spies — and President Trump’s claims that it’s all a hoax. The Times explores what we know and what it means.” You can read the whole thing here.

Opinion commentary on Verzilov 😷

In a (paywalled) op-ed for Republic, columnist Oleg Kashin argues that the apparent poisoning of Pyotr Verzilov is important because it means whoever was responsible for the act also had the means to arrest his common-law wife, Veronika Nikulshina, putting her on trial for two days, possibly so Verzilov would have lunch each day at the same cafe, where he was “exposed.”

Kashin says the charges against Nikulshina were particularly laughable, raising suspicions that she was only targeted to get to Verzilov, who’s known for his “actionist” protest antics, but is far more important for being the publisher of the investigative news website Mediazona. Kashin devotes a whole paragraph to Medizazona’s significance today in Russia, saying that its disappearance (which he believes is likely without Verzilov) would rob the country of a news outlet that “captures the spirit of the times better than any other.”

Yours, Meduza