Weekly 14 September 2019

Did a U.S. spy in the Kremlin have a role in Russian election meddling?

Hello! This week our main story is the Russian angle on the tale of the U.S. spy in the Kremlin who many think betrayed some very big secrets. We also look at why Navalny’s voting strategy brought opposition success at last weekend’s elections in Moscow, how star journalist Yuri Dud is converting his online fame into political influence and whether the decision of one fast-food chain to offer a meat-substitute indicates changes in the market.

Did a U.S. spy in the Kremlin have a role in Russian election meddling?

This tale of high stakes espionage involving Oleg Smolenkov has already been widely reported in the U.S. media so we won’t repeat the main facts. But we will give you the Russian take. 

Why was information about Smolenkov publicly available? The first shocking thing in this story is that there was far too much publicly available information about a man who was apparently the CIA’s most important agent in Russia.  

  • Contrary to normal practice, after being extracted from Russia, Smolenkov apparently continued to use his real name. In June 2018 (in other words, at the peak of the international scandal after the poisoning of his colleague, Sergei Skripal), he bought a house in his own name 40 miles from Washington DC. 
  • When the story about an agent (at that moment, unnamed) fleeing to the U.S. broke, it took less than 24 hours to establish his identity. A basic knowledge of Russian and the ability to use Google were enough to find the last name of an employee of the presidential administration, Oleg Smolenkov, who disappeared in summer 2017. Back then, Russian publication Daily Storm wrote (Rus) about the disappearance.
  • Telegram channel Besposhadny Piarshik (roughly translated as ‘Merciless PR Guy’) was the first to find (Rus) the article. This channel is a collective, anonymous blog with 70,000 subscribers that writes ironic posts about Russia’s PR industry. There is nothing surprising about their find: the channel’s authors include former journalists from well known Moscow publications. 
  • Russian newspaper Kommersant was able to confirm (Rus) Smolenkov’s identity. As the paper is sometimes censored by the Kremlin, some U.S. media outlets concluded that the article was approved by President Vladimir Putin with the goal of scaring Smolenkov, or diminishing the importance of the news by stressing his lack of influence. But, here, an important detail was overlooked: the article only appeared online, and was not published in the printed version of the newspaper. This is not a coincidence: important articles are withheld from the printed edition of Kommersant if the editorial team doesn’t want to upset the Kremlin (the author of this newsletter worked for Kommersant for 10 years). The reason for this is that Putin supposedly only reads Kommersant in print. 

What does this mean? There isn’t a rational explanation for personal data about a secret agent being publicly available, and therefore it’s unlikely to be someone’s cunning plan. The tale of Smolenkov is yet more confirmation of the fact that keeping secrets in the era of social media, geotags and open source data is practically impossible. 

Could Smolenkov be the source of information about Kremlin election meddling?

  • Smolenkov’s official role is unknown, but it seems he was a low-tier government advisor, and could not have had access to really important secrets. According to sources who spoke with Vedomosti newspaper, Smolenkov was involved in economic planning. 
  • However, access to secret information in Russia is not just determined by one’s official position. Smolenkov was also a protege of Putin’s foreign policy advisor Yury Ushakov (they worked together at the Russian embassy in the U.S. when Ushakov was ambassador, and after this, he followed Ushakov to all his subsequent jobs). 
  • Could Ushakov have trusted his assistant with really sensitive information like an order to hack the DNC in 2016? No one knows what kind of personal relationship existed between Ushakov and Smolenkov, but we trust expert Vladimir Frolov, who worked at the Russian embassy in the U.S. in the early 2000s (the FBI called Frolov a Russian spy, who ran one of the most famous Russian spies in the U.S., Robert Hanssen). According (Rus) to Frolov, Ushakov could not have told such a secret to Smolenkov, and was himself unlikely to have known how the decision was made to handover Hillary Clinton’s emails to Wikileaks. It is strictly forbidden under the rules of intelligence operations for an official diplomat to pass on such information. Frolov believes that, if Smolenkov did pass on such information to the CIA, he was passing on wishful thinking. 

Why the world should care

If Smolenkov was really the source of information about Putin’s role in U.S. election meddling, then he is not a great source. But U.S. intelligence agencies almost certainly had human sources — otherwise they would not have had the real names of secret agents involved in the DNC hack. This source is unlikely to have been Oleg Smolenkov. We wrote about who it might have been here

Navalny’s electoral strategy provokes Kremlin ire

Elections to Moscow’s legislature Sunday turned out to be a major success for the opposition, even if independent candidates were prevented from standing. Opposition leader Aleksei Navalny’s call to vote for opposition parties sanctioned by the Kremlin meant they got 20 of the 45 seats in the city parliament. The threat now is not what the opposition parties can do, but the success of Navalny’s voting strategy ahead of the parliamentary elections in 2021.

  • In the elections, the Communist Party secured 13 seats, 4 seats went to the liberal party Yabloko, and 3 to the center-left Just Russia. 
  • This victory doesn’t mean that Moscow’s parliament will be filled with deputies who represent the liberal opposition. The parties they are from are under Kremlin control, and the majority of candidates who Navalny supported are Communists. For example, in one district, Navalny told his supporters to vote for 79-year-old Nikolai Gubenko who was the Soviet Union’s last Minister of Culture (he won).
  • In another district, on Navalny’s recommendation, a certain Alexander Solovyev from Just Russia won. He entered the race as a ‘spoiler’ for independent candidate Alexander Solovyev (the authorities do this to confuse voters and take votes away from undesirable candidates). When Solovyev-1 wasn’t allowed to run, he called on his supporters to vote for Solovyev-2 so that a government-backed candidate wouldn’t win. As a result, the unknown Solovyev-2 won. Comically, he couldn’t be found for four days after his election win.  
  • But the most important thing was that Navalny showed his election strategy works. According (Rus) to sociologists, Navalny’s “smart voting” system guided about 4 percent of Moscow voters (up to 300,000 people). With voter turnout around 20%, this was enough to influence the result. 
  • It wasn’t long before we saw how upset the Kremlin was by all this. On Friday, police carried out searches in Navalny’s offices across 40 Russian cities. It’s clear the government does not want to let Navalny’s influence expand beyond Moscow. 

Why the world should care

Far more important elections will take place in Russia in 2021 when the country choses the deputies to the federal parliament. This will be the prelude to the 2024 presidential election, ahead of which Putin must decide how he can preserve power for a fifth term without violating the constitution or losing legitimacy. The results of the elections in Moscow show that a  straightforward power transition will not be a walk in the park. 

Russian YouTube star Yuri Dud gets political

Journalist Yuri Dud, 32, whose films are watched by millions on YouTube, is starting to become an influential political figure. This summer, he supported protests in Moscow against unfair elections. And this week, many were transfixed by Dud’s speech at the GQ awards, in which he called on people to fight against political repressions. Just like his recent documentary about the 2004 terrorist attack in Beslan, his speech drew criticism from pro-government journalists. 

  • The annual Person of the Year awards hosted by GQ magazine are traditionally attended by all of Moscow’s celebrities. Dud, who received the award for the third time, used his speech to ask the audience not to remain silent about political arrests, police brutality, and corruption. He said participants in the Moscow protests were the real “people of the year”. 

QUOTE: “I have a request. Next time in Russia when ordinary passers-by are beaten with batons, when the next railroad car of state money is stolen, when the next pack of waste paper is dumped into the ballot box, I really ask you to talk about it — not to be silent.”

  • Dud’s speech provoked renewed criticism of him by pro-Kremlin journalists and bloggers. They had already been attacking Dud over a recent documentary he made about the terrorist attack in Beslan in 2004 that questioned the official version of events. Now, Dud is being called an agent of the West. 
  • On the other hand, people from the liberal camp began (Rus) comparing Dud to Volodymyr Zelensky, who was able to transform himself from an actor to president of Ukraine. While it may seem silly, the comparison is not without some merit. 
  • A former sports journalist, Dud began to get popular in 2016 when he opened his own YouTube channel to interview famous people in his trademark sassy style. His primary audience is young people. The film about Beslan has already been watched by more than 14 million people. Dud has 5.8 million subscribers on YouTube, and 2.8 million on Instagram. You can read the story of his success here.

Why the world should care

Russia is not Ukraine, and Dud is unlikely to become Russia’s Zelensky. However, this year he has emerged as one of the most influential people in Russian media. One to watch.

A fast food pancake chain is the first Russian company to offer Beyond Meat

Russia now has a fast food chain that gives customers the option of Beyond Meat’s plant-based meat substitute. The chain is Teremok; it owns Russia’s largest network of cafes with Russian fast food and the menu is centered around Russian blini (thin pancakes with fillings). Teremok is in Russia’s top 5 fast food chains: after McDonalds, KFC, Burger King and Subway.

  • Teremok’s founder Mikhail Goncharov has experience of the U.S. market. In 2016, he opened a cafe in New York, but in 2018 he shut it down citing anti-Russian sentiment.

  • The main problem of Beyond Meat’s substitute meat in Russia is the price. A cutlet of plant-based substitute meat with mashed potato costs 449 rubles at Teremok (around $7). For the same price, you could enjoy a proper lunch in a real restaurant. 

Why the world should care

Russia cuisine is very meat-based, and vegetarians can have a difficult time. Teremok’s adoption of Beyond Meat is a sign that meat alternatives may be going mainstream. 

Peter Mironenko