The Real Russia. Today. The FSB’s latest Ukrainian ‘spies’ and ‘terrorist’

Friday, December 3, 2021

Russo-Ukrainian conflict: the latest arrested ‘Ukrainian agents,’ Washington expects 175,000 Russian troops at Ukrainian border, rumors of progress on U.S. embassy personnel’s visas, (opinion) Rob Lee on Moscow’s likely goals, (opinion) Fyodor Krasheninnikov says Putin wants to collapse Ukrainian statehood, (opinion) Ambassador McFaul says there’s no stability with Putin, and (opinion) Maria Snegovaya explains Russia’s shifting ‘red lines’The pandemic: United Russia circulates guidelines to State Duma deputies for talking to anti-vaxxersLaw and order: A journalist’s parents raided by police outside Rostov, a Tomsk journalist is charged in an extremism case, and Yuri Dmitriev could get a two-year prison-sentence extensionInternational: The Wagner PMC skull patch appears on soldiers’ arms in BanguiThe media: Vladimir Kiriyenko to take over at Vkontakte, his part in the Pandora Papers, (opinion) Tatiana Stanovaya sees competition between Kovalchuk and Gromov, a public spat at RTVI, and Russia’s ‘foreign agent’ list cracks 100

The Russo-Ukrainian conflict

🕵️ The FSB’s latest arrests: Two ‘spies’ and a ‘terrorist’ (6-min read)

On December 2, Russia’s Federal Security Service announced the arrest of three Ukrainian intelligence agents. According to the FSB, one of these assets was planning to set off bombs on Russian soil, while the other two — a father and son — had allegedly been paid to gather intelligence on strategic facilities. Ukraine’s Security Service dismissed the news as fake, accusing the FSB of trying to discredit Ukrainian intelligence in an act of “revenge.” Meduza looks into the detainees and uncovers how a 23-year-old coffee salesman from Kyiv and a father and son duo from a small village in western Ukraine ended up in FSB custody.

Unclassified U.S. intelligence document and anonymous Biden administration official tell Washington Post that Russia is mobilizing 175,000 troops for multi-front offensive of Ukraine in early 2022 (Washington currently counts just 70,000 troops near the border — 24,000 fewer than Kyiv says — but a much larger buildup is expected. The White House has reportedly “cautioned the Ukrainians not to give Russia a pretext for military action.” Experts told the WaPo that the Kremlin is likely “seeking not so much territory but rather a capitulation by Kyiv and its Western backers that results in the security guarantees Putin wants.”)

🛂 WaPo also reports that ‘U.S. diplomats have overcome a months-long standoff with the Kremlin on the granting of visas for U.S. Embassy personnel in Moscow’ (However, RIA Novosti correspondent Polina Chernitsa says her source “totally dismisses” the claim, stating that Moscow and Washington are “not even close to any draft agreement.” Tit-for-tat retaliations have left the embassy badly understaffed, down from 1,200 personnel five years ago to just 120 now.)

💪 Opinion: Defense policy expert Rob Lee says Moscow is likely considering inflicting, or threatening to inflict, ‘enough pain on Ukraine to change Kyiv’s cost-benefit analysis and concede to Russia’s demands’ (Lee says Moscow likely wouldn’t risk a large-scale invasion after witnessing the horrors of occupation in Iraq and Afghanistan; also, because it wouldn’t leverage Russia’s “huge advantage in long-range fires and air defense.” Kyiv and the West risk misinterpreting Russian intentions and sending support like Javelins that “won’t help Ukraine” but “may make it more likely that Russia would use force.”)

🕊️ Opinion: Political analyst Fyodor Krasheninnikov says Putin’s real aim is not full-scale war but to provoke the collapse of Ukrainian statehood and force Western leaders to the negotiating table (He argues that the Kremlin wants to weaken Ukraine and force it back into Russia’s orbit. Putin’s recent overtures to Ukrainians who still sympathize with Moscow are designed to leverage Kyiv’s own dysfunctionality and push the existing government into crisis, creating a situation where Russia’s reengagement with Ukraine becomes a welcome diplomatic and humanitarian step. Krasheninnikov says Kyiv has also tried to exploit the turmoil created by Russia, even “playing along with Putin” to lobby the West for additional security guarantees, money, and support. Besides crashing the Ukrainian state, Putin seeks the legitimacy gained by forcing an audience with Western leaders, which cements his rule at home. Krasheninnikov says an audience with Biden and others is Putin’s “insurance against coups” because he can then present himself to the Russian public as the nation’s only politician with the stature needed to take the world stage.)

🛡️ Opinion: Former U.S. Ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul says Washington should respond to Russian threats against Ukraine with closer ties to Kyiv (McFaul says the nature of the Putin regime is fundamentally incompatible with “stable, predictable [diplomatic] cooperation” and argues that further negotiations resembling “the pageantry of Cold War superpower summits” only give the Kremlin what it wants. He advocates American involvement in renewed Normandy talks and the immediate, public clarification of “a package of serious comprehensive sanctions” if Russia expands its aggression against Ukraine. These sanctions, he says, should escalate “every year that Russia continues to sustain the war in eastern Ukraine.” McFaul also urges deeper military-to-military ties with Kyiv, though he acknowledges that “the U.S. will not defend Ukraine from a Russian attack.”)

🌐 Opinion: Political analyst Maria Snegovaya says Russia’s ‘red lines’ in Ukraine are more about leverage over Kyiv than objections to NATO expansion (She says the Kremlin’s red lines keep shifting because the international community has yet to impose “a serious price for its incursion in neighboring countries.” Criticizing Samuel Charap’s suggestion that Washington should seek an “unsavory compromise” with Moscow, Snegovaya says the Putin administration is no longer willing to accept any scenario where Ukraine maintains its independence, removing all “appeasement options.”)

The pandemic

😷 United Russia’s guidelines for talking to anti-vaxxers (3-min read)

State Duma deputies from Russia’s ruling political party have reportedly been coached on how to respond to anti-vaxxer talking points and objections to pandemic restrictions on movement. Two sources in United Russia confirmed to the news website RBC that the party has circulated guidelines for public engagement to its deputies in the parliament. United Russia’s press service told RBC that it regularly shares such materials with deputies to keep them informed and effective. The recommendations to lawmakers are a bit odd at times. Meduza summarizes the public messaging campaign Russia’s ruling political party has concocted to counter disinformation and paranoia about the coronavirus pandemic and the vaccines developed to fight COVID-19.

Law and order

👮 Police in Rostov-on-Don raid home of journalist’s parents in case against another reporter who fled Russia in 2019 (Igor Khoroshilov, whose parents the authorities visited on Friday, is also a suspect in a separate felony investigation into illegal drug possession — a charge he denies)

⚖️ Tomsk journalist jailed as suspect in ‘Chto Delat! case’ charged with creating an extremist group (Igor Kuznetsov allegedly tried to incite riots using Telegram ahead of Russia’s parliamentary elections in September)

⚖️ Russian prosecutors seek longer prison sentence for historian and Memorial activist Yuri Dmitriev (they want to add another two years to a 13-year term that has been condemned by human rights observers)

International

🌍 Soldiers in Central African Republic reportedly march in uniforms bearing Russian mercenary group’s skull patch (The parade took place on December 1 and also featured armored vehicles displaying the Russian tricolor. Since 2019, the Wagner PMC has helped prop up CAR President Faustin-Archange.)

The media

🤝 Son of Kremlin’s domestic policy czar rumored to be taking over Russia’s biggest social network (Vladimir Kiriyenko’s appointment would cap a takeover of Vkontakte by Gazprom and Sogaz. Boris Dobrodeev — VK’s CEO and the son of VGTRK CEO Oleg Dobrodeev — formally resigned on Friday. TJournal also tracked an apparently coordinated campaign on social media to boost Kiriyenko, featuring supportive comments from Ksenia Sobchak and Georgy Lobushkin, among others.

💱 Vladimir Kiriyenko appears in the Pandora Papers (In a summary of Kiriyenko Jr.’s business career, TJournal notes that he registered two venture capital firms in the British Virgin Islands that invested in American and Israeli companies. TJournal notes that it was not illegal for him to own the offshores, though Kiriyenko’s father at the time happened to be drafting Russia’s future legislation against “foreign agents.”)

⚔️ Opinion: Political analyst Tatiana Stanovaya says VK deal could fuel fighting in Kremlin between Gromov and Kovalchuk (“Gazprom is more of a formal partner than a political player” in this deal, and the key winner is Yuri Kovalchuk, Sogaz’s largest shareholder. “The expansion of Kovalchuk’s empire,” says Stanovaya, “may pose a threat to Alexey Gromov,” the Kremlin’s current mass media czar. Kovalchuk has a less “aggressive” approach to media, she says.)

⚔️ Journalists at RTVI argue publicly about Tina Kandelaki’s recent interview with acting head of Russia’s Federal Emergency Management Agency (NYC-based Anastasia Chumakova criticized the interview as a free promotion for MChS head Alexander Chupriyan to help him save face after the Listvyazhnaya mine disaster. Maxim Solopov responded at length to Chumakova’s remarks, defending the interview as “strong and professional.”)

👮 Russian Justice Ministry surpasses 100 ‘foreign-agent media’ designations (the latest additions are four journalists from RFE/RL’s Tatar-Bashkir Service)

Yours, Meduza

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