The Real Russia. Today. Political warfare explodes in the Moscow region, and an FSB agent reveals the ‘real reason’ for Russia's Telegram crackdown

Friday, April 20, 2018

  • A Moscow district official asks Putin to save him from Moscow's governor
  • An FSB official says Russia's Telegram crackdown is really all about cryptocurrency
  • Raiffeisen Bank has ATM problems
  • Roskomnadzor bans more than a dozen VPN and proxy services, plus tens of thousands of Microsoft Azure IP addresses
  • Russia's Internet blacklist is managed by a private company whose main client is the military
  • An important resource for anybody traveling to Moscow this summer for the World Cup
  • A bribery case lands an ex-investigator in prison for 13 years
  • The man who funds Russia's “troll factory” and Wagner PMC has turned his attention to Africa

Story of the day: Politics gets heated and public outside Moscow 😤

Alexander Shestun, the head of the Moscow region’s Serpukhovsky district, has addressed a video to Vladimir Putin, claiming that Governor Andrey Vorobyov is threatening to confiscate his home and put him in prison, if he doesn’t resign. Vorobyov supposedly wants him out because Shestun opposes the transformation of the Serpukhovsky district into a municipal precinct and he objects to further waste shipments from the city to Serpukhov’s over-capacity “Lesnaya” landfill.

👮‍♂️ Threats from people in high places

Shestun’s video includes audio recordings of conversations with officials he identifies as Andrey Yarin (Putin’s head of domestic policy), Ivan Tkachev (the head of the FSB’s credit and finance counterintelligence unit), and Mikhail Kuzetsov (the Moscow governor’s chief of staff). In the recordings, Tkachev supposedly says Shestun’s life would be “steamrolled” if he didn’t resign, offering up the following examples of ruined state officials: Denis Sugrobov (the former economic crimes unit director who was sentenced to 22 years in prison in April 2017 for organizing a crime syndicate), Alexander Solovyov (the former head of Udmurtia who was fired and arrested for allegedly receiving bribes), and Leonid Markelov (the former governor of Mari El, who’s now charged with illegal weapons possession and soliciting bribes). Shestun says the conversations took place last year, in late April and early May. He claims Tkachev repeated his warning in April 2018, telling him not to permit any protests against the Lesnaya garbage dump.

Shestun also says masked law enforcement officers raided the Serpukhovsky district’s administrative office on April 19. Shestun didn’t specify the reason for the unscheduled inspection, but he says the agents planted two envelopes in his safe containing 180,000 rubles (about $3,000).

🕰 A bit of history on Shestun and Serpukhov

Alexander Shestun has served as head of the Serpukhovsky district since 2003. He has repeatedly criticized Governor Vorobyov, who in 2014 launched a jurisdictional enlargement initiative to fold various districts into municipal precincts. Shestun has also feuded with the Moscow Region’s Forestry Commission, which briefly tried to seize the land on which his house is located. On April 5, Moscow’s regional parliament restored direct elections for Shestun’s position, after abolishing them in 2015.

On April 5 and 9, FSB agents raided district administrative offices in Serpukhov and Volokolamsk. Shestun says this was punishment for granting demonstration permits to residents for protests against local landfills that have spewed hydrogen sulfide into the air. On April 9, Shestun appealed to his constituents in a video message where he accused the Moscow regional authorities of threatening him with criminal charges if he granted the permits and dared to run for re-election in September. The message included an audio recording of a conversation with someone Shestun claims is Mikhail Kuznetsov.

Telegramorama 📱

💰 The “real reason” for the crackdown

According to a letter written by a special investigations agent in the Federal Security Service, Russia is trying to block Telegram because of Pavel Durov’s plans to launch his own cryptocurrency — not because the instant messenger refused to surrender the service’s encryption keys. The magazine RBC says FSB agent Roman Antipkin started circulating his letter to colleagues on April 18. A federal official and a top executive at a major telecom company anonymously verified to RBC that the letter is real. Antipkin has refused to speak to journalists.

Pavel Chikov, whose human rights group “Agora” is defending Telegram in Russian court, is urging the public not to believe “planted stories” that revise the government’s justifications for its broad assault on Telegram. Chikov says accepting Antipkin’s claim about the authorities’ supposed true motivations is to assume that the government might drop its stated case that its actions against the instant messenger are rooted in the fight against terrorism.

“Colleagues, this story isn’t what you think!” wrote Roman Antipkin. “It’s not about [encryption] keys or terrorism [...]. Pasha Durov decided to become the new [pyramid schemer Sergey] Mavrodi. Once he’s launched his own crypto, we in Russia would get a completely unregulated financial system. And it wouldn’t be just bitcoins for geeks — it would be simple, reliable, and uncontrollable. This is a threat to our national security [...]. All drugs, off-the-books cash, and organ trading would be run through Pasha’s crypto, and he’d say, ‘This has nothing to do with me. Go ahead and ban speech — terrorists use it, after all.’”

What's the Telegram cryptocurrency? In late 2017, Telegram founder and CEO Pavel Durov announced that he plans to use Telegram as a basis for a new blockchain platform called Telegram Open Network and a new cryptocurrency called “Gram.” By March 2018, Telegram raised $1.7 billion from investors in two closed Initial Coin Offerings.

🏧 Bank problems

On April 20, ATMs and online services operated by Raiffeisen Bank started failing. The bank says the problem isn’t related to Roskomnadzor’s efforts to block the instant messenger Telegram, explaining that the problem “is on our end.” According to some reports, however, Raiffeisen Bank’s online services are available outside Russia and through VPN, suggesting that the current technical difficulties could in fact be related to the millions of IP addresses Russia’s federal censor has blocked this week.

💻 Take that, VPN

Russia’s federal censor has blocked 18 VPN and proxy services that Russians were using to gain access to Telegram, according to the news agency Interfax. It’s unclear, however, which services were actually blocked. Roskomnadzor also says it’s been targeted by DDoS attacks from abroad using “special botnets.”

☁️ Take that, Microsoft

In its expanding war on the instant messenger Telegram, Russia’s federal censor has blocked tens of thousands of IP addresses operated by the Microsoft Azure cloud platform.

According to an unofficial copy of Roskomnadzor’s “out-load” list of banned online content, the agency has ordered Russian ISPs to cut access to the subnet, which masks 131,000 IP addresses, as well as the Azure subnet, which masks another 32,000 IP addresses. Roskomnadzor has also blocked other subnets operated by Microsoft-owned companies.

Microsoft Azure is a cloud computing service for building, testing, deploying, and managing applications and services through a global network of Microsoft-managed data centers.

🤝 Enter the military industrial complex

On April 16, Russia’s federal censor (Roskomnadzor) started blocking the instant messenger Telegram. For technical support, the agency relies largely on a company called “E.Soft,” which has received hundreds of millions of rubles in state contracts to provide its services to Roskomnadzor. It’s possible that E.Soft is directly responsible for implementing the blocking of Telegram. Meduza special correspondent Ivan Golunov learned more about E.Soft, how much it earns from government deals, who owns it, and how the Russian Defense Ministry fits into all this.

Headed to Moscow for the World Cup? ⚽️

Are you traveling to Moscow for this summer’s FIFA World Cup? You might not know this, but water heating is centralized in Russian cities, and there’s a chance that your accommodations will only have cold running water. The Moscow United Energy Company has an online service where you can look up your address and find out when the hot water service is scheduled to be unavailable. There’s one snag: you’ve got to enter the address in Russian, and you need to type it out, without copy-pasting the text. Is that annoyingly cumbersome? Of course! Have a great time in Moscow.

Prison time for another ex-cop 🚨

Former Colonel Mikhail Maksimenko, who led the Federal Investigative Committee’s Internal Security Directorate, has been fined 165 million rubles ($2.7 million) and sentenced to 13 years in prison for accepting a $500,000 bribe to try to free a criminal working for the mobster Zakhariy Kalashov (known as “Young Shakro”). Maksimenko was also stripped of his rank as colonel and banned for life from working again for a state agency. Three other law enforcement officers testified against him, including one of his former subordinates. Maksimenko maintains his innocence.

The court ruled that Maksimenko received the money to help free Andrey Kochuikov (known as “The Italian”), who took part in a deadly shootout at a Moscow cafe in 2015, where two of Kalashov’s men died. Kalashov was recently sentenced to 10 years in prison for extortion. In Maksimenko’s case, officials also testified against Moscow Investigative Committee chief Alexander Drymanov, but he has only been named as a witness in the case.

Putin's chef heads to Africa 🌍

You’ve heard of Evgeny Prigozhin’s catering empire, his private military company, his troll factory, and his close ties to the Defense Ministry, the Moscow school system, and Vladimir Putin, but have you heard about the team of political scientists he’s fielding in Africa ahead of upcoming local elections? According to the newspaper Kommersant, Prigozhin is funding a political-spin-doctor initiative focused on Madagascar, South Africa, and Kenya. The man reportedly in charge of the “Africa project” is Yaroslav Ignatovsky, whom Prigozhin formerly paid to monitor the “sociopolitical situation” in Russia’s North-Western Federal District.

Yours, Meduza