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The Real Russia. Today. The money behind South Ossetia, eleven embarrassing facts about GRU agents, and an FSB-FBI connection

Meduza

Wednesday, October 10, 2018

This day in history. On October 10, 1985, Yul Brynner died at the age of 65 in New York City. The Russian-born actor was best known for portraying King Mongkut of Siam in “The King and I,” Ramesses II in “The Ten Commandments,” the gunman Chris Adams in “The Magnificent Seven,” and leading roles in many other films.
  • Meduza's special report on South Ossetia: the independent republic where everything depends on Moscow
  • Russian newspaper says FSB agents were promised 10 million dollars to leak criminal evidence against hackers, possibly outing ‘Fancy Bear’ to the FBI
  • Russia's Salisbury suspects reportedly tailed Sergey Skripal in Prague in 2014
  • Here are 11 embarrassing things we've learned about Russia’s Military Intelligence Directorate over the past few months
  • Officials in Dagestan offer an iPhone SE to the citizen who can report the most Internet ‘hate speech’ criminals
  • A Novaya Gazeta columnist angers Bellingcat
  • A police detective outside Moscow is murdered while leaving her home. Just a few months earlier, somebody set fire to her car.
  • The chairman of Russia's Constitutional Court says ‘drastic’ reforms are needed
  • The Kremlin might be preparing new election reforms, including the removal of the ‘municipal filter’
  • Alexey Navalny's teenage daughter launches her own YouTube channel
  • Police arrest soccer players Pavel Mamaev and Alexander Kokorin on battery charges
  • Officials in Dagestan offer an iPhone SE to the citizen who can report the most Internet ‘hate speech’ criminals
  • British writers’ association PEN International releases new study on “Russia’s Strident Stifling of Free Speech”
  • Carnegie Moscow Center's Andrei Kolesnikov says Putin broke the social contract with pension reform, and now his ‘standard toolkit’ is problematic
  • Bloomberg tracks Russian businessman's bizarre return home

Some “independence” 💰

After the war with Georgia in 2008, Russia became the first of five UN member states to recognize the independence of South Ossetia, effectively taking the breakaway republic under its wing. Ten years later, the territory’s governance and economy are largely controlled by Moscow, which has spent billions of rubles to keep South Ossetia afloat. Meduza special correspondent Ilya Zhegulev traveled to Tskhinvali to find out where that Russian money ended up, how the territory’s businessmen make ends meet, and how South Ossetia’s budget depends on the self-declared republics in eastern Ukraine.

Read the full story here: “How a Kremlin lifeline aided by separatist Ukraine is developing South Ossetia”

Fancy rumors 🐻

On October 6, the newspaper Novaya Gazeta published an article by columnist Irek Murtazin echoing a report from a day earlier in Kommersant that says Russian investigators have evidence that former FSB Information Security Center agent Sergey Mikhailov, former Kaspersky Lab expert Ruslan Stoyanov, and two other accomplices shared secret intelligence with the FBI.

Whereas Kommersant’s sources say the four suspects were promised $10 million to give the Americans internal files and case records from their 2013 investigation into Pavel Vrublevsky (an entrepreneur with notorious ties to hackers and spammers), Murtazin cites rumors that the authorities have screenshots of messages from one of Vrublevsky’s former business partners offering the same amount of money to “ruin” Vrublevsky and land him in jail. (Mikhailov personally supervised the case that got Vrublevsky a 2.5-year prison sentence, though Vrublevsky was released on parole a year early.) Both the Kommersant story and the Murtazin article describe the same scheme, whereby Mikhailov allegedly leaked the data to the FBI through a chain of intermediaries. (You can read a rundown here.)

Murtazin says he first met Mikhailov at Moscow’s Tushino District Court in 2013, during Vrublevsky’s trial, which he says “seemed manufactured.” Murtazin dismisses the fact that Vrublevsky spent years accusing Mikhailov and Stoyanov of sharing criminal evidence with the FBI to “scapegoat” Russian businessmen, in order to get easy, high-profile arrests for the FSB. For example, Murtazin argues that an email written by Vrublevsky to a colleague in 2010 and then hacked and leaked a year later would have fueled news stories to discredit Mikhailov, if it had been “blatant disinformation.” Instead, Murtazin says, Vrublevsky was the one targeted in a subsequent “defamation campaign.”

Implying that Vrublevsky was punished after blowing the whistle on Mikhailov’s treason is controversial, to put it mildly. Responding to Kommersant's report on October 5, American cyber-crime journalist Brian Krebs tweeted, “I call BS on this story, and am willing to bet that [Vrublevsky] paid for its placement. These Russian cyber-crime fighters that Vrublevsky hates so much are on trial for their lives (literally) because they did the right thing in a country where no one does.”

Murtazin’s sources also “hinted” that Mihkailov’s “most serious crime” was sharing intelligence that allowed the FBI to identify the GRU hacker group “Fancy Bear.” Noting that the group virtually ceased its activities after December 2016, Murtazin guesses that Fancy Bear’s “curators” were ordered to “keep a low profile,” once Mikhailov and his accomplices were arrested.

According to Murtazin, this potential link to the group that hacked the Democratic National Committee in 2016 could explain the Mikhailov trial’s “super secrecy,” insofar as acknowledging that he helped the FBI unmask Fancy Bear would be tantamount to admitting that the operation is run by Russia’s Military Intelligence Directorate.

The Czech connection 🕵️‍♂️

The two alleged Russian military intelligence officers accused of trying to assassinate double agent Sergey Skripal in Salisbury, England, reportedly tailed him in Prague in October 2014, according to the public radio broadcaster Český Rozhlas, citing sources in Czech intelligence. The two spies, Anatoly Chepiga and Alexander Mishkin, supposedly came to Prague using their alleged cover identities, Ruslan Boshirov and Alexander Petrov. The British authorities previously fingered Boshirov and Petrov for the nerve-agent attack in Salisbury, warning that these names are likely false. Both men later granted a single interview to the Kremlin-controlled television network RT, where they insisted (rather unconvincingly) that they aren’t spies.

Český Rozhlas’s sources say “Boshirov” came to Prague on October 11, 2014, and “Petrov” arrived about five days later. Sergey Skripal reportedly came to the city later in the month to meet with Czech intelligence officers. Český Rozhlas also reports that the Czech authorities expelled three Russian citizens in 2014 “for security reasons,” but it’s unknown if “Boshirov” or “Petrov” were deported in this group. Both the Czech Security Information Service and the Russian embassy refused to comment on the story.

What have we learned about Russia’s Military Intelligence Directorate over the past few months? 🤔

  1. Agents get documents for new fictional identities, when they join.
  2. Some agents change only their surname, while others also change their first name, patronymic, birth date, and place of birth.
  3. The new surnames agents assume are generally more common last names in Russia (for example, Shishkamov becomes Shirokov, Ivannikov becomes Laptev, and Mishkin becomes Petrov).
  4. Agents change their passports, but not their driver’s licenses.
  5. Agents aren’t assigned phony backstories when they’re issued their new identities. Instead of forged backdated documents, their new records bear a “Top Secret” label and a stamp that reads “Do Not Provide Any Information” and lists the Military Intelligence Directorate’s phone number.
  6. Agents travel abroad only using their new passports with their fake names.
  7. Agents’ new identification documents are issued in batches, as evidenced by their sequential passport numbers.
  8. In state registration paperwork, agents and their families often list their home addresses as their military unit or the GRU’s headquarters. As a result, anyone with access to databases with these records is able to identify the agents.
  9. The top state honor granted to GRU agents, the Hero of the Russian Federation award, is bestowed personally by Russia’s president. The executive order issuing the award is classified, but recipients’ families, friends, and former instructors know about it. Sometimes, military academies celebrate winners with honorary plaques.
  10. In addition to the Hero of the Russian Federation medal, the state also awards some GRU agents free apartments in Moscow.
  11. During missions abroad, agents carry various receipts, so they can submit expense reports for reimbursements back in Moscow.

Sources: investigations by Bellingcat, The Insider, and The Conflict Intelligence Team.

The third man 🥉

The Russian news website Fontanka says a third suspect in the Salisbury attack was traveling under the (likely false) identity “Sergey Fedotov.” Without naming its sources, Fontanka claims that the British authorities will soon announce that “Fedotov” was in London in March 2018 on the same days as “Alexander Petrov” and “Ruslan Boshirov” (the two men already identified as suspects in the poisoning case). The third man apparently arrived in Britain on a separate flight, but left on the same plane as the other two alleged GRU agents.

According to Fontanka, “Fedotov” was also in Prague in 2014, with “Petrov” and “Boshirov,” when they were allegedly failing Sergey Skripal, as he met with Czech intelligence officers.

In late September, the British newspaper The Telegraph reported that local officials had identified a third GRU agent who supposedly carried out reconnaissance work ahead of the attack in Salisbury.

Ruffled OSINT feathers 🔍

On October 9, the newspaper Novaya Gazeta angered multiple researchers at Bellingcat by publishing an article by long-time deputy general director Valery Shiryaev, where he suggests Bellingcat withheld some of its intelligence — contravening the organization’s “principle of total transparency” — in order to stagger the release of its bombshell reports, thereby “diligently maintaining the scandal’s pressure” on the GRU (Russia’s Military Intelligence Directorate). Shiryaev also speculates that British police and counterintelligence are feeding insider information to Bellingcat.

On Twitter, Bellingcat investigator Christo Grozev said he was “truly disappointed in Novaya Gazeta” because of the article, insisting the his team publishes its investigative reports as quickly as possible. Grozev also said the allegation that Bellingcat receives leaks from the British government is “totally frivolous.” Chiming in, Bellingcat Eastern Europe lead researcher Aric Toler called Shiryaev’s article “trash,” stating that the group did not receive any leaked data from “any security services.” Kirill Mikhailov, a researcher at The Conflict Intelligence Team (another open-source intelligence outfit), then argued that Shiryaev “is okay” when compared to Novaya Gazeta’s other columnists. He “probably just doesn’t know how [open-source intelligence] works,” Mikhailov tweeted.

Incidentally, Valery Shiryaev reportedly worked for the Federal Security Service (FSB) before coming to Novaya Gazeta. In 2001, then Chief Military Prosecutor Mikhail Kislitsyn stated publicly that Shiryaev was an employee at the Federal Security Service before he took a job in corporate security at the Media-Most holding company. Near the end of his October 9 article, Shiryaev speculates that the GRU’s recent embarrassments will benefit the FSB and the SVR (Russia’s Foreign Intelligence Service). Shiryaev also asks (probably rhetorically) if Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu or Chief of the Russian Armed Forces’ General Staff Valery Gerasimov will end up taking the blame.

Whatever Shiryaev’s knowledge of Russia's intelligence community, Novaya Gazeta quickly apologized to Grozev and to Bellingcat in a series of tweets that sparkle with awkward English.

RIP detective 🚨

Interior Ministry detective Evgeniya Shishkina was murdered outside her home in the town of Arkhangelskoye. An unidentified man shot her as she was leaving her apartment building and walking toward the parking lot, on her way to work. Shishkina died from a gunshot to the neck; her body was later discovered by her husband. Initial reports claimed that the killer shot her twice and then stabbed Shishkina in the neck and head, but investigators later clarified that they recovered just a single bullet and one bullet casing at the scene of the crime.

Shishkina was a lieutenant colonel in the police. A career officer, she joined the Interior Ministry in 1991, rising from inspector in the Moscow Railway Special Transport Department to senior detective in the Major Cases Division. According to the tabloid Mash, Shishkina has recently been investigating several high-profile cases related to fraud and economic crimes.

Shishkina’s killing is being investigated as a fatal attack on a law enforcement officer. Police initially opened a straightforward murder case, but the charges were revised hours later, after investigators announced that there is “sufficient evidence” to suggest that Shishkina was killed because of her work as a detective. Officials have also added arms trafficking charges. The case has been transferred to the Main Investigations Directorate of the Moscow region’s Investigative Committee. According to the news agency Vesti, Shishkina’s murder might be connected to an investigation related to the drug trade.

Several months ago, someone set fire to Shishkina’s Lexus. Investigators never identified the assailants, but Mash calls the incident an “attempted murder”: Shishkina allegedly detained an innocent man and then proceeded to extort money from him, when working a case involving the transportation of a large batch of illegal drugs. The man’s relatives were reportedly suspected of the arson attack on Shishkina’s Lexus. According to the newspaper Kommersant, the same relatives appealed to the district attorney and the local police about Shishkina, but internal investigators determined that she did not abuse her authority.

Ch-ch-changes ⚖️

In a long think piece published on October 9 in Rossiyskaya Gazeta, Russia’s official newspaper of record, Constitutional Court Chairman Valery Zorkin argued passionately for “drastic reforms” to the country’s constitution. Zorkin’s article is a mixed bag, criticizing Russia’s current constitution for having too few checks and balances and “insufficient clarity” in division of powers between the presidency and government, while also warning against “outmoded liberal models of democracy” and the “risks and costs of globalization.” What follows is a short, paraphrased retelling of Zorkin’s text:

The Constitution has some imperfections, but they can be eliminated surgically. Russians are tired of reforms, injustice, and poverty. There’s no way to live in dignity: there was privatization in the 90s, and now millions of people are losing their jobs to computerization, plus there’s pension reform and corruption. The Constitutional Court protects Russian citizens. One party or one group shouldn’t be allowed to monopolize power, and the most effective system is a two-party government like in the United States. Instead of the outmoded liberal model of democracy, Russia needs a “more effective model of popular rule.” People want to defend traditional values against globalization. The European Court of Human Rights is increasingly divorced from reality, imposing its position on countries and forcing people to defend themselves. “Minority rights can be protected to the extent that the majority consents.” The country needs to unite economic and political competition with the “collectivism inherent in the Russian people.” Otherwise, the nation faces “another stagnation.”

Election reforms on the horizon? 🗳️

The television network RTVI says the Kremlin is assembling 150 election officials from across the country on October 30, possibly to orchestrate some major legislative changes. (Don't count on Zorkin's ideas going anywhere, though: Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov says the Putin administration isn’t working on any constitutional reforms, and said Zorkin was merely expressing his personal opinion.)

The gathering will commemorate the 25th anniversary of President Yeltsin’s executive order forming the Central Election Commission for the first convocation of the State Duma. Current Commissioner Ella Pamfilova recently advocated the abolition of Russia’s controversial “municipal filter,” and some commentators have speculated that the Kremlin might endorse the idea, in order to flood political races with splintered opposition candidates.

Like father, like daughter 👨‍👧

Navalny's 17-year-old daughter, Dasha Navalnaya, has launched her own YouTube channel, describing the project as an effort to shine on college applications, which she’ll be sending out soon. On the show (only one episode has aired, so far), Dasha will interview fellow young people about their political views. She says Russian young people demonstrated in nationwide protests in March 2017 that they have become the “core” of the country’s anti-corruption movement, but she also promises to interview “young supporters of Putin.” Navalnaya’s first guest, Timofey, shared a mix of observations, ranging from “the percentage of Russians who want change is very small” to “the people deserve better.” You can watch the show here on YouTube.

Brawltown 👊

Police arrested the soccer players Pavel Mamaev and Alexander Kokorin on Wednesday, two days after the athletes got into two separate fights: one at a parking lot, where they brutally attacked Pervyi Kanal television pundit Vladimir Solovyov’s driver, and a second fight at a Moscow cafe, where they brawled with other customers and beat up a high-ranking officer in Russia’s Industry and Trade Ministry while allegedly shouting racist insults. Mamaev and Kokorin now face battery charges that carry a maximum penalty of seven years in prison.

Do it for your country, and for an iPhone 📱

Dagestan’s Communications and Mass Media Ministry is promising smartphones to citizens who are especially helpful about reporting Internet users for “extremist content.” The hotline has been active since at least April 2018, but journalists only learned about it recently. The ministry's website offers a 32-gigabyte iPhone SE to the contest’s winner, but it’s unclear when the promotion ends, and there’s no indication of how many complaints contestants have submitted, so far. Prizes for second and third places are a 32-gigabyte “Xaomi Redmi 5” and “Xaomi Redmi 4A,” respectively.

Concerned citizens can also report Internet users anonymously to Dagestani officials for promoting terrorism, inciting hatred, or spreading “other types of illegal content.”

Strident Stifling 🗣️

The British writers’ association PEN International has released a new study, titled “Russia’s Strident Stifling of Free Speech: 2012-2018,” cataloging the repressive laws enacted over the past seven years, the threats to Russia’s free press, the “noose” tightening around artistic freedom and literature, and Russia’s international human rights obligations. “While restrictive laws have particularly targeted political opposition and civil society, they affect all Russians,” the group’s report argues. Read the 28-page document here.

Time keeps on slipping ⌛

In a “quick take” for the Carnegie Moscow Center, senior fellow Andrei Kolesnikov addresses Putin’s slipping trust and approval scores, according to the latest polling data from the Levada Center. Kolesnikov says the shift is mostly the result of the president signing legislation to raise the country’s retirement age — “an unexpected and blatant breach of Russia’s paternalistic, unwritten social contract.” Putin’s “standard toolkit” for “reestablishing his popularity” might be problematic, however, given that Russians are apparently tired of “permanent struggle with the West.” Read Kolesnikov’s article here at the Carnegie Moscow Center.

No place like home 🏡

In a special report for Bloomberg, Irina Reznik and Henry Meyer explain how Sergey Kapchuk fled Russia to England in 2005 to avoid fraud charges, only to return earlier this year, to take advantage of a special repatriation program managed by Vladimir Putin’s business commissioner, Boris Titov. The story is not straightforward, and it involves human shields and squatting in the forest. Read it here at Bloomberg.

Yours, Meduza