Meduza

The Real Russia. Today. ‘Putin's chef’ Evgeny Prigozhin is implicated in murders, poisonings, and kidnappings; Meduza profiles Maria Zakharova; and Frolov looks at the U.S. exit from the INF Treaty

Monday, October 22, 2018

This day in history. On October 22, 1962, President John F. Kennedy announced that U.S. reconnaissance planes have discovered Soviet nuclear weapons in Cuba, and that he had ordered a naval “quarantine” of the Communist nation.
  • After confessing to attacking and poisoning people on behalf of “Putin's chef,” a newspaper source suddenly disappears
  • Meduza profiles Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova
  • Russian lawmakers want to limit foreign ownership of online news aggregators
  • Federal officials are still struggling to get Russia's self-employed workers to pay their taxes
  • Putin orders new sanctions against Ukraine
  • The Kremlin tries to explain what Putin meant about Russians going to heaven in a nuclear Armageddon
  • A Navalny activist convicted of hitting a cop goes free from jail after eight months
  • Protests in Vladikavkaz against local factory, after fire spreads air pollution across the city
  • Spanish judges acquit 17 Russians in mafia money-laundering case
  • The U.S. plans to leave the INF Treaty
  • Columnist Vladimir Frolov says the U.S. exit from the INF Treaty is mostly a strategic win and publicity coup for Russia

From “Putin's chef” to “Putin's hitman”? 🎯

On October 22, the independent newspaper Novaya Gazeta published a new investigative report claiming that people associated with the Putin-connected catering industry oligarch Evgeny Prigozhin are responsible for attacking opposition activists and bloggers, as well as carrying out several murders and poisonings in different countries, including in Syria. The newspaper says it got this information from a 61-year-old man named Valery Amelchenko, who allegedly participated in some of these operations, beginning in 2012. Amelchenko described several of his secret missions to Novaya Gazeta, and then disappeared on October 2. Novaya Gazeta’s Denis Korotkov speculates that Amelchenko was either abducted, killed, or he might have even staged his own disappearance.

The woman who redefined Russian diplomacy 👩

Maria Zakharova, the official spokesperson for Russia’s Foreign Ministry, is one of Moscow’s best known public figures outside the country. The first woman ever to head the agency’s press service, Zakharova has radically changed the way the Foreign Ministry talks to journalists and the rest of the world, and she’s also reinvented how Russian diplomats look and act. Her style is a paradoxical mix of press relations maintained at Western standards mixed with the theatrical absurd. She sticks to official diplomatic protocol when speaking to colleagues, but uses Internet memes and poems of her own invention in Facebook posts to comment on breaking news stories.

Meduza international correspondent Konstantin Benyumov spent several hours with Zakharova and talked to her colleagues, friends, teachers, and opponents, to learn how a young woman from a family of Soviet diplomats managed to redefine the language of Russian diplomacy. Read Meduza’s original Russian-language report here, and you can find an adapted English-language version of this story (with contributions from Emily Tamkin) here at BuzzFeed News.

Another Internet crackdown law 📡

Russian lawmakers have introduced their latest draconian law on the Internet, proposing a ban on all online news-aggregation services with more than 20-percent foreign ownership. The legislation was drafted by members of LDPR, including Andrey Lugovoy, the Russian lawmaker wanted in Great Britain for his alleged role in the murder of Alexander Litvinenko. After the draft bill was announced, shares in the Russian Internet company Yandex dropped four percent on the Moscow State Exchange.

A 20-percent ceiling on foreign ownership is already enforced against registered mass media outlets in Russia. According to current media regulations, the state identifies news aggregators as any websites that index and redistribute news publications in Russian (or any of the Russian Federation’s other national languages), earn money on advertising in Russia, and have daily audiences greater than 1 million visitors.

Currently, the biggest news aggregator in Russia is Yandex News. “If such a law is adopted, the company’s board of directors will review potential options to restructure the news service in accordance with the new legal requirements,” Yandex’s spokesman told reporters on Monday.

Pay your damned taxes 💸

Andrey Makarov, the head of the State Duma’s Budget Committee, says the government is coming for self-employed tax evaders, warning that these people will face fines as high as the salaries they fail to declare. Asked for details about this initiative, Makarov told reporters on Monday, “I can say one thing: it’s going to happen.”

According to the magazine RBC, economists believe that roughly 20 million self-employed Russians (nannies, tutors, and so on) don’t pay their income taxes. In his “state of the nation” speech to the Federal Assembly in 2016, Vladimir Putin stressed the need to resolve this problem. Officials have tried to lure workers into paying their dues by offering tax holidays, but fewer than 1,000 people have reportedly taken advantage of the program.

Saddle up, Ukraine 🏦

On October 22, Vladimir Putin signed an executive order authorizing his government to devise “special economic measures” aimed at Ukraine for Kyiv’s “hostile actions against Russia.” The president’s order calls on his cabinet to designate a list of individuals and entities for targeted sanctions. In July 2018, the newspaper Kommersant reported that the Kremlin was drafting a plan to freeze the assets of Ukrainians to be named in future sanctions. Currently, the Ukrainian government has imposed sanctions against roughly 1,700 individuals and about 700 entities (most of them from Russia).

Explaining Putin's “heaven allegory” 😇

On October 18, Vladimir Putin said Russia will annihilate any enemy that attacks the country with nuclear weapons, causing a small stir when he added that Russians would go to heaven “as martyrs and the victims of aggression,” while the adversary “would simply be wiped out.” On October 22, asked again about the remark, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Putin was merely “speaking allegorically” and trying to emphasize that Russia rejects a first-strike nuclear posture.

Freedom for a jailed Navalny activist ⌛

Konstantin Saltykov, an activist in Alexey Navalny’s anti-corruption movement, was sentenced to 10 months in prison by Moscow’s Tverskoy District Court on Monday for attacking a police officer at a protest on January 28, and was then promptly released, having served almost eight months in pretrial detention. (Saltykov owes his early release to a new federal law that weighs one day of pretrial detention as 1.5 days of standard imprisonment.) Saltykov was arrested alongside Alexey Navalny, who months later was sentenced to 30 days in jail for staging the rally without a permit from city officials. Saltykov’s scuffle with police, incidentally, was caught on video. Watch it for yourself and decide if the clash warranted a 10-month prison sentence.

Protesting pollution ♻️

In Vladikavkaz, several hundred people attended an unplanned protest outside the North Ossetian government building, demanding the closure of the “Elektrotsink” factory, which is one of Russia’s biggest metallurgical companies. A day earlier, the first suffered a major fire that took 12 hours to put out, costing one firefighter his life. Fumes from the blaze have engulfed areas of Vladikavkaz, causing a citywide health crisis.

Read it elsewhere 📰

⚖️ The Tambovskaya-Malyshevskaya is home-free

“Spanish judges have acquitted 17 Russians over alleged large-scale money-laundering for the Russian mafia. Nine other suspects remain at large, including alleged gang boss Gennady Petrov. The National Criminal Court found insufficient proof that the Russians' investments in Spain involved the proceeds of organized crime,” reports the BBC. Read the story here.

👋 So long, INF Treaty

Responding to news reports that Donald Trump plans to withdraw the U.S. from the landmark Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (which rid Europe of land-based nuclear missiles), the Kremlin’s spokesman said Moscow would be forced to “respond in kind” to “restore the military balance with the United States,” if the White House carries through on its threat. Moscow rejects American allegations that it’s breached the treaty, arguing that Washington is the one undermining its principles with strike dones and anti-missile systems. Read the story here at Reuters. For another report on the same story — with quotes from former German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel, former Pentagon official Franklin Miller, and Arms Control Association executive director Daryl G. Kimball — read The Washington Post’s report here.

⚰️ Vladimir Frolov says the INF Treaty was dead almost two decades ago

In an op-ed for Republic, columnist Vladimir Frolov argues that the INF Treaty has been effectively “dead” since 2001, when the last inspections ended. The agreement itself, he says, only really benefited the United States and NATO, as it “indefinitely secured their advantage in sea- and air-based cruise missiles,” restraining Moscow on mid-range ground-launched ballistic and cruise missiles (on which it relies most for national security in nuclear war). Frolov says the Russian military has been busy violating the treaty for the past decade in subtle ways, to push Washington to back out, while forcing the U.S. to absorb the negative publicity now raining down on the Trump administration.

The only real drawback for Moscow in the American exit from the INF Treaty, Frolov argues, is that Russia more broadly will become strategically less important to Washington, once the missile limits are tossed out. He warns that John Bolton and company will use the death of the INF Treaty as justification for refusing to extend the Obama-era New START Treaty (despite Putin’s diplomatic outreach in Helsinki), arguing that an unrestrained Russian nuclear arsenal is just as dangerous as when Moscow evaded its INF Treaty constraints.

Frolov thinks it’s still too soon to say if the unfolding arms race will focus on Asia (where the U.S. most wants to be free of INF Treaty restrictions) or in both Asia and Europe, but top officials in Russia’s armed forces (like General Staff Chief Valery Gerasimov and Defense Ministry Sergey Shoigu) have publicly remained calm, so far.


Yours, Meduza