The Real Russia. Today. How one man escaped the burning SSJ100, investigators focus on pilot error, and budgeting for an isolated RuNet
Tuesday, May 7, 2019
This day in history: 31 years ago, on May 7, 1988, the Democratic Union (the USSR's first openly oppositionist political party) began its constitutive congress in Moscow. A day later, the party was formally founded.
- Aeroflot passenger Oleg Molchanov describes his escape from the burning jet at Sheremetyevo
- Investigators focus on alleged pilot errors in Moscow airplane fire
- Government sets five-year plan for center that would control an isolated RuNet
- Aviation journalist Anastasia Dagaeva on the SSJ100's production history
- Former diplomat Vladimir Frolov says Venezuela has evolved into a nice bargaining chip for Moscow
- Columnist Oleg Kashin says Russian conspiracy theorists are doing the Kremlin's work independently
- Third suspect in attack on journalist Oleg Kashin arrested after years of hiding in Belarus
- Russia issues new state contract to monitor and categorize social media and news reports
- Moscow police are looking for the soccer fans who protested ‘Fan ID’ at a recent game
- Sheremetyevo demands ‘severest punishment’ for airport staff who laughed at Sunday’s catastrophic airplane fire
On May 5, a Sukhoi Superjet 100 owned by the Russian airline Aeroflot caught fire at Sheremetyevo airport. The airplane, which was bound for Murmansk, made an emergency landing at its departure point soon after takeoff. 41 people died in the fire out of the 78 people onboard the flight. Meduza spoke with 35-year-old Murmansk entrepreneur Oleg Molchanov, who survived the fire along with his wife.
Russian officials leading the investigation into a disastrous May 5 airplane fire that left 41 people dead are treating the actions of the pilots who were flying the Sukhoi Superjet 100 as a potentially central explanation for the airplane’s destruction, sources close to the investigation told Kommersant.
Read Meduza's story: “Investigators focus on alleged pilot errors in Moscow airplane fire”
The Russian government has approved regulations that allocate funds from its budget to create and operate a Monitoring and Direction Center for Public Online Networks. This Monitoring Center would be responsible for the operation of the Russian Internet were it to be isolated in case of an external threat. A budget of 1.8 billion rubles ($27.6 million) over the next three years has been proposed for the creation of the center. The new regulations will enable the center to rely primarily on contract labor until 2022, with contractors completing 95 percent of all tasks related to developing software and hardware for the center. The center itself is set to include no more than 70 employees whose average salary will not exceed the average salary in Moscow.
Opinions and analysis
In an article for the Carnegie Moscow Center, aviation journalist Anastasia Dagaeva reviews the troubled history of the Sukhoi Superjet 100, following Sunday’s deadly fire at Sheremetyevo airport. Dagaeva argues that the SSJ100 managed to make it this far thanks largely to the incentives for praise created by Russia’s government spending patterns. During the plane’s development, top managers at United Aircraft Corporation (the Russian aerospace and defense corporation that manufactures the SSJ100) even admitted that officials lauded the project, knowing that it was necessary to secure and keep federal funding. The more “magical” the SSJ100 became, the fewer defects were possible to discuss in the open, making the plane a “hostage” to its own flawless public image, Dagaeva says.
In 2015, the project lost its “chief patron” when military aircraft designer and SSJ100 architect Mikhail Pogosyan left United Aircraft Corporation, leading to a loss of the plane’s “public gloss.”
So why does anyone buy this hunk of junk? Dagaeva says Russian airlines buy the SSJ100 “only because of state incentives and tax breaks,” but even these perks don’t make the aircraft especially appealing, she argues. Aeroflot’s CEO once acknowledged in an interview that his shareholders would likely have objected to SSJ100 purchases, if Aeroflot were a private company.
What now? Dagaeva says the SSJ100 has effectively ceased being “aviation technology,” and now represents “a kind of sociopolitical symbol of hope and disappointment.” Following Sunday’s fire, everyone — passengers, state officials, and the airlines — seems to have grown tired of the SSJ100. Canceling production outright, however, could be catastrophic for United Aircraft Corporation, which has poured $2 billion into the aircraft. Less radically, the SSJ100 could merge with the future development of the Irkut MC-21. Dagaeva says Russia needs new planes for regional routes, and UAC might even find buyers in the FSB, Interior Ministry, and Emergency Management Agency.
In an op-ed for Republic, columnist and former diplomat Vladimir Frolov highlights the recent Pompeo-Lavrov meeting in Finland as the major first diplomatic contact between the U.S. and Russia (other than Bolton-Patrushev and various special-envoy meetings). Frolov says the brief talk in Finland, coupled with Donald Trump’s longer phone call with Putin, indicate “tentative” negotiations about a “grand bargain” involving Ukraine, Venezuela, and possibly North Korea.
Frolov, who has criticized Moscow’s meddling in Venezuela, now says the crisis has become a useful bargaining chip for the Kremlin. Russia recognized early on, Frolov says, that Trump has no real strategy in Venezuela, and the Kremlin realized that Trump would eventually face a choice between a major war or a major humiliation. Moscow can now help Trump avoid both, also knowing that Trump’s 2020 electoral hopes in Florida depend largely on his administration’s success in Venezuela.
When John Bolton cites the Monroe Doctrine as an objection to Russian meddling in Venezuela, Frolov says it actually gives Moscow hope that the Americans will come to the negotiating table ready to acknowledge Russia’s sphere of influence, once Washington’s attempt to overthrow Maduro hits a dead end. If the Kremlin ever gets this recognition, Frolov says Moscow’s dream would be a grand bargain wherein the Trump administration pressures Kyiv into enforcing Russia’s interpretation of the Minsk 2 agreement and Washington cedes control over Ukraine’s geopolitical orbit, in exchange for a constitutional transfer of power away from Maduro in Venezuela.
Throughout Sunday, Russia’s news media reported that only a dozen or so people died in a fire aboard an aircraft that made an emergency landing at Sheremtyevo. Around midnight, however, “after the TV had gone to bed,” officials revealed that the death toll had actually reached 41 people. In an op-ed for Republic, columnist Oleg Kashin says the authorities’ decision to stagger the release of information about the tragedy demonstrates how Russia’s state media has evolved since the Soviet era, while early victim blaming on social media shows how public attitudes have shifted, and now complement the authorities’ media efforts.
The Soviet state’s lies during major disasters cultivated popular rage aimed at officials who were assumed to be hiding something. Suspicions about the government’s “secrets” in these moments has waned today, Kashin says, but the Soviet legacy of conspiracy theories has “reanimated” in a new form.
The state started the trend by blaming bystanders, both insignificant and invented (focusing the public’s attention on taxi drivers who supposedly raised their rates after a terrorist attack, or boat captains who supposedly ignored a sinking ship). Now Internet users are happy to do this work independently, Kashin says, shifting the public’s rage to “safe” targets, like passengers last Sunday who supposedly slowed the exits by grabbing their suitcases.
- 👮 Thirty-four-year-old Vyacheslav Borisov has been caught and arrested in St. Petersburg, the website Fontanka reported. Borisov is suspected of participating in a 2010 attack on the independent journalist Oleg Kashin that nearly left the journalist dead. However, he was arrested in connection with a separate case. Read the story here.
- 🕵️ Russia’s Presidential Affairs Department is soliciting bids on a new government contract to monitor social media and the news media. According to the Internet freedom movement Roskomsvoboda, the Kremlin is also paying for the monitoring of Telegram channels, even though Telegram is technically blocked in Russia. Read the story here.
- ⚽ Police in Moscow are searching for the fans who unfurled an “unpermitted banner” at a soccer game on May 5, when CSKA Moscow fans displayed a banner that read: “Six billion rubles to implement Fan ID, or annual pensions for 35,714 people, 4 new maternity wards, 7 new schools, 1 oncological hospital, or 31 new kindergartens.” Read the story here.
- ✈️ Top executives at Sheremetyevo airport are demanding the “severest” punishment for the airport officials who filmed themselves laughing at Sunday's airplane fire aboard a Sukhoi Superjet 100, which killed 41 people. Recorded in a restricted area of Sheremetyevo, a video shared online this week shows airport staff watching the plane make its emergency landing, as one man jokes that the plane “landed well, making sparks fly.” Read the story here.