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The Real Russia. Today. Butina's stateside ‘handler,’ how Russian police catch Facebook and Telegram users, and astronaut/cosmonaut photographic glory

Meduza

Thursday, March 7, 2019

This day in history: 37 years ago today, on March 7, 1982, iconic Soviet filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky traveled to Italy to start shooting Nostalghia. He never returned to Russia, dying in Paris in 1986 at the age of fifty-four.
  • In connection with Maria Butina, FBI agents reportedly questioned people close to Dmitri Simes, the president of the Center for the National Interest
  • How Russian law enforcement identifies Facebook and Telegram users
  • Putin’s spokesman called a question about this stolen gas pipeline ‘slander.’ Two months later, the police are investigating.
  • How Kazakhstan welcomes ISS astronauts back to Earth

Maria Butina's stateside handler? 🕵️

While investigating Maria Butina for illegal foreign agent activities, the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation reportedly explored her ties to Russian-American political expert and Center for the National Interest president Dimitri Simes, who has co-hosted a talk show on Russian state television since 2018. Two sources who know Simes told the online project Otkrytye Media (Open Media) that FBI agents previously questioned them about Simes’s connections to Butina. After Butina’s arrest in July 2018, federal agents reportedly visited the Center for the National Interest in Washington, D.C.

The think tank’s lawyer, David Rivkin, told Otkrytye Media that the FBI’s interest is part of a campaign “designed to destroy CNI’s reputation,” saying that the federal agents did not meet with Simes.

  • This isn’t the first time Dmitri Simes’s name has come up in the Butina case. Last August, historian Yuri Felshtinsky accused Simes of acting as Butina's “U.S. handler.” This February, Reuters reported that the Senate Finance Committee sent a letter to Simes, “seeking additional information about meetings with top Russian government officials” that Maria Butina helped organize. Butina also wrote an article in June 2015 that appeared in the magazine The National Interest, which is owned by the Center for the National Interest. Simes’s friends told Bloomberg that his interactions with Butina didn’t surprise them, describing him as an “open person whose job involves contacts in both Russia and the U.S.”

Creative police work 👮

When policing online behavior in Russia, law enforcement agencies enjoy total compliance from the country’s most popular social network, Vkontakte, which coughs up users’ personal data whenever requested. This information — account registration times, linked email addresses and phone numbers, and IP addresses — constitutes sufficient evidence in court to prove that an individual is responsible for the content posted on their account. When it comes to Internet services based abroad, however, there’s no such cooperation, and Russia’s police have to get creative. In a new report for the website Mediazona, journalist Alexander Borodikhin summarizes 10 cases brought against individuals who allegedly violated Russia’s Internet laws by sharing illegal materials on foreign-operated social networks. Meduza summarizes this report.

Read our summary: “How Russian law enforcement identifies Facebook and Telegram users”

A slanderous question 🙊

On November 8, 2017, the website Fontanka published an investigative report about Gazprom’s construction of a 100-kilometer-long (62-mile-long) gas pipeline in Priozersk, outside St. Petersburg. According to financial records, the project’s contractor, “Omega,” completed the work back in 2014 and received 1.7 billion rubles ($25.8 million, according to the current exchange rate). Journalists later discovered, however, that only the first of four sections was ever finished: just 40 kilometers (25 miles) of pipeline. In September 2017, Omega declared bankruptcy.

December 20, 2018

At his annual marathon press conference, Vladimir Putin fields a question from 47news.ru journalist Viktor Smirnov, who complains that “a pipeline in Priozersk was stolen a couple of years ago” worth 1.8 billion rubles, but police still haven’t opened a criminal investigation. The president promises to look into the situation.

December 23, 2018

Immediately after the press conference, appearing on Rossiya 1 network television, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov says Smirnov’s comments constitute slander. “Nobody laid any pipeline or got any money for it — it’s still planned for the future. There’s a normal process in place for the gas infrastructure development of Russia’s regions. [Gazprom head Alexey] Miller has reported on this multiple times to the president. [...] In essence, you could call this slander,” Peskov says of Smirnov’s remarks, adding that the Kremlin should consider additional restrictions to guard the annual press conference from “non-journalists” who use the forum to lodge “personal complaints.”

December 26, 2018

Gazprom officially confirms to the BBC that 1.7 billion rubles was paid for the construction of a gas pipeline in Priozersk, though Omega finished only one of the four sections. The company says work on the remainder of the pipeline was suspended deliberately, because of changes to the design of the gas supply infrastructure. But the BBC also uncovered a memo describing the results of an internal investigation that says of the second 30-kilometer pipeline section: “No welded pipeline was found.”

January 10, 2019

March 6, 2019

Interior Ministry investigators launch a large-scale fraud case against Vitaly Ermolaev, Omega’s CEO, accusing him of citing false pretexts for dividend payments, fictitious loan agreements, and unfounded payments to affiliated companies that allowed him to withdraw funds from Gazprom that cost the corporation more than 800 million rubles ($12.1 million) in damages. According to 47news.ru, police have not yet detained Ermolaev, who is reportedly a notorious St. Petersburg motorcycle gang member. Ermolaev has been named as a suspect in at least two suspended felony cases, one involving gunfire at police officers last July and another case involving unpaid wages to Omega staff.

From the stars to the steppes 👨‍🚀

Russian cosmonaut Gennady Padalka enjoys an apple after returning to Earth on a SoyuzTMA-17M spacecraft. Fresh produce is a rarity on the ISS, so cosmonauts and astronauts are often treated to fruits and vegetables when they land. Padalka is the world record holder for the total amount of time spent in space by one person; he has been away from the blue marble for a total of 878 days. Kazakhstan, September 2015.
Andrew McConnell / Museum of Cosmonautics

For the first time in Russia, images by the Irish photographer and two-time World Press Photo award winner Andrew McConnell will be displayed in a public exhibit. Re-entry is open in Moscow’s Museum of Cosmonautics until March 31. The foundation of the project is a set of photographs McConnell took in Kazakhstan during reentry missions from the International Space Station. Meduza offers a preview of those photos.

Check them out here: “How Kazakhstan welcomes ISS astronauts back to Earth”

Yours, Meduza