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News Feed Brief summaries of major developments throughout the week (June 27–July 1, 2022): Russian airstrikes on civilians, Putin says Union State with Belarus grows stronger, and a shakeup at Sakhalin-2

In the digest below, Meduza condenses the latest news stories in and around Russia and Ukraine. You can find last week’s news feed here. (Cover page photo: Anna Voitenko / Reuters / Scanpix / LETA.)

💽 Google reportedly facilitated data harvesting by a sanctioned Russian ad firm: Google may have provided Sberbank-owned RuTarget (a sanctioned Russian ad company) with unique mobile phone IDs, IP addresses, location information, and details about users’ interests and online activity, according to a new report by ProPublica. The digital ad analysis firm Adalytics identified close to 700 examples of RuTarget receiving user data from Google after the company was added to a U.S. Treasury list of sanctioned entities on February 24. “The data sharing between Google and RuTarget stopped four months later on June 23, the day ProPublica contacted Google about the activity.”

🕊️ ‘Adjusting’ the Kaliningrad standoff: EU officials are developing a new sanctions package that would “include adjustments to rules around the transit of sanctioned goods to the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad,” sources told Bloomberg, which also reported that policymakers have raised concerns that Lithuania “could be pressured into allowing banned goods to transit through the country to Kaliningrad.” Moscow has threatened to retaliate against Lithuania if it continues to the block rail and truck transport of goods like steel.

🏒 Future NHL player lands at Russian draft board instead of Philadelphia: Police officers intercepted ice hockey player Ivan Fedotov outside an ice rink in St. Petersburg on Friday and delivered him to a military draft board. There are conflicting and poorly sourced reports now circulating about the nature of Fedotov’s detention, but the local news outlet Fontanka says he’s been charged with an unspecified misdemeanor. According to earlier reports, the hockey player could face felony prosecution for draft evasion due to his plans to quit the Moscow’s CSKA hockey team and take a goalie position with the Philadelphia Flyers in the NHL. (CSKA is an ice hockey club of the Russian Army, and its members are officially considered military personnel, complicating any contract terminations by players.)

⚖️ Donetsk charges two more foreign fighters with ‘mercenary’ work: Officials in the self-declared Donetsk People’s Republic have charged another two British nationals, Dylan Hilly and Andrew Hill, with illegal mercenary activity and attempting to stage a coup. (The DNR recently convicted three other captured foreign combatants and issued death sentences.) Russia’s Defense Ministry previously reported that Hill surrendered to Russian troops in Ukraine’s Mykolaiv region while fighting in the Ukrainian military without a formal contract. According to the state news agency RIA Novosti, Hill is suspected of assisting in the destruction of a Russian APC that killed at least two Russian servicemen. Less is known about Dylan Hilly, but one source told TASS that he was captured in Mariupol with a Ukrainian infantry brigade.

🤝 Putin says Western pressure strengthens Russian-Belarusian Union State: At a forum on Friday, Vladimir Putin stated that Western pressure is “accelerating the unification process” between Russia and Belarus. The president explained that sanctions and other Transatlantic policies force Moscow and Minsk to work together to minimize economic damage and maximize production. Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, in turn, said in a video message that former Soviet republics should seek “alignment” with the Union State “if they want to preserve their sovereignty and independence, of course.” (In 2019, Moscow restarted negotiations with Minsk to integrate Russia and Belarus more closely, returning to discussions from the 1990s about a shared parliament, constitution, and currency.)

🚨 More than a dozen killed in attack on Odesa: A Russian airstrike near Ukraine’s Black Sea port of Odesa on Friday hit an apartment building and a resort, killing at least 19 people, according to local officials. The attack occurred just hours after Moscow withdrew troops from the nearby Snake Island in what the Defense Ministry called a “goodwill gesture.”

💰 Money trouble: Russia’s new 100-ruble banknotes could take years to roll out completely due to banking equipment manufacturers’ withdrawal from the Russian market, Kommersant reported.

According to the newspaper, Russia’s ATMs, payment terminals, and cash registers need to be “taught” — programmed — to recognize the new notes. This is usually done by the equipment’s manufacturers, but the companies NCR and Diebold Nixdorf, which manufacture 60 percent of Russia’s ATMs, have suspected servicing of Russian equipment.

🏙️ That’ll show the West: The online polls are currently open for Moscow residents to decide which area in the city to rename after the self-proclaimed Luhansk People’s Republic. Voters are given three choices:

  • The territory surrounding the British Embassy
  • The territory surrounding the German Embassy
  • The territory surrounding the Lithuanian Embassy (unless the authorities have in mind the Belgian Embassy, which is nearby;)

There’s also a fourth option: voters can opt to “leave the choice up to specialists.”

The area around the U.S. Embassy in Moscow was renamed “Donetsk People’s Republic Square” last month.

🛢️ A Sakhalin-2 shakeup: The Kremlin is testing the loyalty of foreign investors in the Sakhalin-2 oil and gas development project (Shell, Mitsui, and Mitsubishi). A new executive order signed by Vladimir Putin transfers the assets of Sakhalin Energy to state property and invites the old consortium’s foreign participants to act as shareholders in the new state company. If they refuse, however, their shares will be sold, and the proceeds (minus “damages”) will be frozen in Russian bank accounts.

🪖 Longer hours and more obligations for defense contractors: The Russian government has submitted a draft law to the State Duma that would regulate provisions for the military during “counterterrorism and other operations outside Russian territory.” The legislation would grant the federal government the power to introduce “special economic measures” related to these provisions, permitting additional overtime work, overnight work, weekend and holiday work, and paid vacation. The draft law would also revoke Russian legal entities’ right to refuse contracts for procurement and defense orders when the work concerns military operations abroad.

💰 Washington blocks a billion in oligarch bucks: The U.S. Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) announced that it’s blocked more than $1 billion in assets at the Delaware-based Heritage Trust for its connections to sanctioned Russian billionaire Suleiman Kerimov. The Treasury says “Kerimov used a complex series of legal structures and front persons to obscure his interest in Heritage Trust” in order to invest in “large public and private U.S. companies.”

🚫 State Duma approves additional censorship powers: Russian lawmakers have adopted the third and final reading of legislation that fast-tracks news-media censorship by granting extrajudicial powers to police agencies, allowing the deregistration and blocking of publications believed to have disseminated “fakes,” “discrediting information about the Russian Armed Forces,” and “incitements to sanctions.” First-time offenses can result in suspension for as long as three months, while repeat violations are punishable by suspension for up to six months. The draft law also codifies “reciprocal actions” against foreign media outlets in response to bans against Russian media abroad.

💰 Gazprom abandons dividends for 2021, but not Rosneft: For the first time since 1998, the Russian energy giant Gazprom will not pay dividends on last year’s earnings. Following the announcement, the company’s shares dropped by almost 30 percent. Deputy CEO Famil Sadygov says Gazprom will focus instead on “regional gasification, preparation for the heating season, and paying increased taxes,” according to Reuters. The board of directors had previously recommended paying a dividend of 52.53 rubles per share.

Update: Russian oil giant Rosneft announced record-high dividends in 2021, paying shareholders 441.5 billion rubles (currently almost $8.2 billion) — roughly half of the company’s estimated profits on the year.

👮 Prominent economist arrested in infamous embezzlement case: State investigators in Moscow have arrested Vladimir Mau on charges of large-scale embezzlement. The rector of the Russian Presidential Academy of National Economy and Public Administration, Mau is now a suspect in an ongoing felony case against former Deputy Education Minister Marina Rakova and Moscow School for the Social and Economic Sciences Rector Sergey Zuev. Hours before his arrest, Mau was reappointed to the board of directors at the Russian energy giant Gazprom.

Update: Mau has been placed under house arrest until at least August 7, pending trial. Prosecutors argued that he remains a flight risk and had a flight booked for Turkey on July 2.
Background

Sharp conflict The fraud case against Marina Rakova and Sergey Zuyev was based on analysis conducted by the Russian Academy of Education — an institution run by her former boss

Background

Sharp conflict The fraud case against Marina Rakova and Sergey Zuyev was based on analysis conducted by the Russian Academy of Education — an institution run by her former boss

🏛️ Amnesty declares Russian attack a war crime: Amnesty International has named Russia’s attack on Mariupol’s drama theater in March a war crime. Experts from the human rights organization gathered testimonies from 52 survivors and witnesses, 28 of whom were in the theater or nearby at the moment of the attack, in addition to other evidence. They concluded that the strike was committed by Russian troops, who most likely dropped two 500-kilogram (1102-pound) bombs, which detonated simultaneously, from a fighter plane.

⚖️ Repeated fines for an independent Yekaterinburg news outlet: A court in Yekaterinburg fined the local media outlet Vechernie Vedomosti 200,000 rubles (currently about $3,840) for publishing 54 claims on its Telegram channel that supposedly discredit Russia’s military. (The offenses included using the word “war” to describe Russia’s actions in Ukraine.) In a separate case earlier in the month, a court fined Vechernie Vedomosti 150,000 rubles for republishing images of antiwar stickers.

🎭 The Gogol Center is dead, long live the Gogol Center! On Wednesday, Moscow’s Culture Department announced leadership changes at several of the city’s theaters, including the Gogol Drama Theater, which became better known as the Gogol Center while it was Russia’s leading avant-garde theater. The center’s former director, Kirill Serebrennikov, characterized the removal of directors Alexey Agranovich and Alexey Kabeshev as the center’s effective death. “Yes, the Gogol Center is closed. That’s it,” he wrote on Telegram. City officials say the theater will remain open, however.

🕊️ Cooling off in Kaliningrad: EU officials are nearing a “compromise deal” with the Baltic states that could return trade through Lithuania to Kaliningrad “within says,” two sources told Reuters. The compromise would “exempt the territory from sanctions,” provided that Lithuania “drops its reservations.” Moscow has called the transport restrictions a “blockade” and threatened to escalate tensions in the region.

🪖 The biggest prisoner swap yet: Ukrainian defense officials say they’ve freed 144 Ukrainian soldiers, including 95 men who surrendered after defending Mariupol’s Azovstal iron and steel works (43 of whom are Azov Battalion combatants), in a prisoner swap with Russia and pro-Russian separatists (who freed 144 their own captured fighters). The Ukrainian military says this is the largest prisoner exchange yet since Russia’s invasion in February. Many of the men returned to Ukraine are reportedly still suffering from serious injuries sustained while defending Mariupol against Russian attack. Self-declared Donetsk People’s Republic head Denis Pushilin also confirmed the exchange.

🛡️ Russia is Number One! NATO leaders approved a new Strategic Concept on Wednesday, defining the Russian Federation as the “most significant and direct threat” to Allies’ security, while “addressing China for the first time and the challenges that Beijing poses toward Allies’ security, interests, and values.” The Earth’s climate crisis also gets a mention as “a defining challenge of our time.”

🥗 Russian cuisine uncanceled: Journalists and international officials who attended this week’s NATO summit in Madrid were “bemused,” according to Reuters, to find “Russian salad” listed atop the in-house restaurant menu. Though visiting defense and foreign ministers were apparently offered a different menu with “more diplomatic thought,” the Russian salad reportedly “sold out within hours.”

🤖 Spare a thought for Russia’s parts: Electronics repair centers in Russia have reportedly started disassembling new devices for spare parts, due to a shortage of replacement components caused by international sanctions and corporate withdrawals from the country. The new hardships have delayed the average time needed for repair services, and the sale of electronics through “parallel importation” (to evade sanctions) transfers warranty costs from manufacturers to distributors, which are sometimes located abroad in countries like Kazakhstan or Kyrgyzstan.

♂️ If grandma had the genitals of grandpa… British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said on Tuesday that Vladimir Putin’s decision to invade Ukraine constitutes “a perfect example of toxic masculinity,” speculating that the Russian president wouldn’t have “embarked on a crazy, macho war of invasion and violence” if he were a she. “Old [Sigmund] Freud would have dreamed of such a case study,” responded Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov.

⚠️ This page cannot be displayed: Russia's state space corporation, Roscosmos, has reported a DDoS attack on its site. On Tuesday, Roscosmos published satellite images and coordinates of various Western headquarters, including the Pentagon and the exact location of NATO's Madrid Summit, which it referred to as “decision-making centers supporting the Ukrainian nationalists." The corporation claimed to be posting the information “just in case."

🚨 Airstrikes on civilians in Mykolayiv: A Russian airstrike on an apartment building in Mykolayiv Wednesday morning left three people dead and five injured, according to Regional Military Administration head Vitaliy Kim. Mayor Oleksandr Senkevych reported earlier that Russia also launched strikes on a local stadium and a military target, and that the blast wave damaged eight apartment buildings, breaking their windows. The earlier strike was carried out using a Bastion-P coastal defense missile system located in the occupied Kherson region, according to Senkevych.

State Emergency Service of Ukraine / Reuters / Scanpix / LETA

⏲️ Captured British soldier appeals death sentence: British citizen Shaun Pinner, who was sentenced to death by leaders of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic for fighting alongside Ukraine in the war, has appealed the sentence. “We submitted an appeal. There’s a two-week review period. If they deny it, we’re going to write a petition for clemency. The client asked, so I’m required,” Yulia Tserkovnikova, Pinner’s lawyer, told Interfax. Shaun Pinner was charged along with British citizen Aiden Aslin and Brahim Saadoune of Morocco.

👮 Arresting the lawyer of a jailed journalist: On Tuesday, police in Russia’s Udmurt Republic arrested Dmitry Talantov (a lawyer who now represents treason-accused journalist Ivan Safronov) on felony charges of spreading supposed “disinformation” about the nation’s military. The case reportedly concerns a message that Talantov posted on social media in April, though he condemned Russia’s Armed Forces a day before his arrest for a deadly airstrike against a shopping mall in Kremenchuk, Ukraine.

🚧 Memory politics at play in Kaliningrad: City officials in Sovetsk, in Russia’s Kaliningrad region, have removed a memorial plaque dedicated to the Prussian-Lithuanian writer Vilius Storostas-Vydūnas. The town’s mayor has indicated that the plaque will be replaced with a memorial devoted to Denis Davydov, a Russian soldier-poet of the Napoleonic Wars. (In mid-June, Lithuanian officials started blocking the freight transport by rail and highway of various goods into Kaliningrad that are now under EU sanctions, leading to allegations from Moscow that the region has been placed “under a blockade.”)

Background

Can Russia’s Kaliningrad region cope without freight transport through Lithuania? Meduza explains.

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🍸 Russia loses a big-time booze business: The British alcohol company Diageo (which manufactures Smirnoff, Black Label, Johnnie Walker, Guinness, Baileys, Captain Morgan, and other brands) has announced its gradual but complete withdrawal from the Russian market over the next six months. Spokespeople for Diageo say its roughly 300 employees in Russia are being offered “extended compensation packages,” as the business shutters its operations in the country.

🪖 Send our husbands home, Mr. Governor: The wives of soldiers from a tank brigade based in Buryatia have appealed to local Governor Alexey Tsydenov in a video shared on social media, asking him to return their husbands from the war in Ukraine. In the video, the women say the soldiers left for training exercises in January and have been fighting on the frontlines almost without interruption since the start of the invasion on February 24. “These men are exhausted both physically and mentally,” says one woman in the video, claiming that all soldiers in the brigade have suffered concussions of varying severity. (Local reporters in Buryatia have documented the deaths of at least 30 soldiers deployed to Ukraine with this same tank brigade.)