Weekly 4 April 2022

Bucha killings

Hello! This week our main story is the peace talks between Russia and Ukraine in Istanbul that offered grounds for cautious optimism – even if a ceasefire still seems a distant prospect. We also look at President Vladimir Putin’s decision to oblige all buyers of Russian natural gas to pay in rubles, and the news that The Bell’s founder, Elizaveta Osetinskaya, and our editor-in-chief Irina Malkova have been added to Russia’s list of ‘foreign agents’.


A statement from The Bell: The risks for journalists working in Russia rose exponentially last week after a law was passed that punishes the spread of ‘fake news’ with up to 15 years in jail. It’s already well known that Russian officials refuse to describe events in Ukraine as a ‘war’, preferring the term ‘special military operation’. As a result, we are halting all direct coverage of Russia’s ‘special military operation’ in Ukraine until further notice — although we will, of course, continue to report on its far-reaching economic, political and social consequences. If you notice that we’re being circumspect about our choice of language and topics — you’re right. We are. At the moment we believe that’s the only way we can protect our journalists, and continue to function as a media outlet.

Atrocities look set to stymie peace talks

As Russian troops retreated from areas around the Ukrainian cities of Kyiv and Chernihiv over the weekend, photos and videos emerged of the summary execution of civilians and mass graves. The most shocking images were from the town of Bucha, just outside Kyiv, that Ukrainian forces retook Saturday. Corpses were found lying in Bucha’s main street — some of which had their hands tied behind their backs.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy quickly accused Russian troops of war crimes and genocide. Russia denies the allegations, and the Russian Ministry of Defense said Sunday that the video and photo evidence was a “provocation”. State-owned news agency RIA Novosti claimed that the West was trying to fabricate a “Ukrainian Srebrenica”.

On a visit to Bucha on Monday, Zelenskyy warned that the behavior of Russian troops could make peace negotiations much harder. “It’s very difficult to talk when you see what they’ve done here,” Zelenskyy told journalists. “The longer the Russian Federation drags out the negotiating process, the worse it is for them and for this situation and for this war.”

Prior to the Russian retreat, a meeting in Istanbul last week between the two sides had generated some guarded optimism that a ceasefire might be possible. The Ukrainian delegation unveiled a proposal for a future ceasefire deal which, according to The Bell’s sources, largely met with Moscow’s approval. However, significant disagreement remains on several fundamental issues.

For Ukraine, it’s important to appear as the initiator, a source close to the negotiations told The Bell. The same source believes Russia is moving toward an agreement because any further military action would mean combat in cities and a repeat of the carnage in Mariupol.

The Ukrainian proposals boiled down to:

  • An agreement on Ukraine’s neutral, nuclear-free status backed by third-party security guarantees.
  • An agreement on mutual respect for language and culture (Kyiv suggests that other neighboring states such as Poland, Hungary and Romania should join this pact).
  • A delay in discussions about the status of Donbas until a summit meeting between Putin and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy. Everything is up for grabs: from the re-establishment of pre-war borders of the so-called People’s Republics of Donetsk and Lugansk to full recognition of their independence. A compromise could reflect the borders of the territory held by Russia at the moment of any agreement.

At the same time, it’s important to point out major sticking points:

  • The status of land under Russian control of the Russian army in northern and southern Ukraine (including the Crimean peninsula annexed by Russia in 2014) was not discussed.
  • The content and wording of a collective security agreement for Ukraine is a complex issue. It’s important to keep in mind that the wording suggested Tuesday is the Ukrainian proposal, according to The Bell’s source. Russia is highly unlikely to agree to a final agreement that reflects the phrasing of Article Five of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). Genuine security guarantees must be given to Ukraine, but there needs to be a clear mechanism to prevent NATO states from manipulating the agreement to the detriment of Russia’s interests, our source said.
  • Any easing of Western sanctions against Russia is not part of the negotiations. Officially, the Russians have not raised this issue, The Bell’s source said.

Russia confirmed that a meeting between Putin and Zelenskyy was possible, but refused to commit to a time frame. On Friday, Turkish President Recep Erdogan – who has emerged as a key intermediary in the negotiations – mentioned the possibility of a summit. However, the previous day, Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi, who took a phone call from Putin to discuss the possibility of paying for Russian gas in rubles, said the Russian president had told him that talk of a ceasefire was “premature”.

Either way, it’s clear the situation could change at any moment. As well as evidence of atrocities committed by Russian troops and the likelihood of a new round of Western sanctions, the retreat of Russian forces from around Kyiv has drawn stinging criticism from conservatives and nationalists back home. “We are leaving Kyiv. I’m neither a politician nor a general, nor do I have the full picture in front of me. I don’t know why this was decided,” one of the country’s best-known pro-Kremlin war reporters, Alexander Kots, wrote on social media Friday. “Throughout these six weeks I have been with my army. Nothing and nobody can detract from their achievements. They could not be taken in battle,” he said, apparently hinting that the military was stabbed in the back by the politicians.

One of the biggest “hawks” in Russian politics, Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov, also expressed opposition.“We make no concessions,” Kadyrov said in a video. “Medinsky [the leader of the Russian delegation at the talks] made a mistake and drew up an inappropriate statement.”. Kadyrov pledged Russian troops would take Kyiv if Ukraine did not accept Moscow’s demands. Other advocates for continuing the war reportedly include State Duma speaker Vyacheslav Volodin and TV propagandists like presenter Vladimir Solovyov.

An incident Friday morning could also become an issue in future talks. At about 6am the head of Russia’s Belgorod Region reported a fire at the city’s oil depot – half an hour later, he said it was due to an airstrike by two Ukrainian helicopters. Later, a video emerged on social media supporting this claim, which was backed up by independent experts. The fire was not brought under control until that evening. Ukrainian officials have refused to confirm or deny the involvement of the Ukrainian military, which suggests it was a Ukrainian attack.

Putin’s gas plan

After a week of ‘will he, won’t he’, Putin signed into law Thursday rules obliging European countries to purchase Russian natural gas in rubles. However, the decree does not fundamentally change anything for European customers, who will continue to pay in euros – all currency manipulations will be the work of Russian state-owned Gazprombank. If Europe complies, it will mean a major Russian state-owned bank will be protected against the threat of sanctions and the Kremlin will be able to tell Russians it won an economic victory.

The decree outlines therules European countries are expected to follow from April 1:

  1. European importers open two accounts with Gazprombank: one in rubles, one in foreign currency.
  2. European importers transfer payments for natural gas in euros to their foreign currency Gazprombank accounts.
  3. Gazprombank sells the euros on the Moscow exchange and transfers the rubles it receives into the ruble account held by the European company.
  4. European importers transfer those rubles to state-owned gas giant Gazprom.

For the Europeans, nothing much changes: they continue to make payments in euros, and Gazprombank converts those funds into rubles and transfers the money to Gazprom.

It is hard to predict the European response to the new payment system: every European politician has insisted that they will continue to pay in euros for natural gas – but Putin’s scheme allows them to do exactly that.

For the Russian economy and the ruble, the new rules also change nothing: since late February, all exporters have been obliged to convert 80 percent of foreign currency earnings into rubles. However, the scheme does enable Gazprombank to become almost untouchable as far as new European or U.S. sanctions are concerned. This bank, whose biggest shareholder is Yuri Kovalchuk, a close friend of Putin, is known for its links to Putin’s inner circle. For example, it financed deals for Putin’s former son-in-law, Kirill Shamalov.

To a certain extent, the bank has already been shielded: Gazprombank was a leading candidate for targeting by U.S. and European Union sanctions, but avoided restrictions. So far, only the United Kingdom has imposed sanctions. EU countries concerned about disruption to natural gas supplies were behind the decision to protect Gazprombank, sources told the Wall Street Journal last month. Keeping Gazprombank safe from sanctions in this way could mean it becomes a conduit for Russia’s business relations with the outside world. “The goal [of Western officials] is to secure gas payments. But the same channel will remain open for other payments. The experience of Iran and Venezuela shows that banks can set up their transactions in such a way that it becomes almost impossible to establish ultimate beneficiaries,” Carrie Steinbauer, a former U.S. Treasury official, told the Wall Street Journal.

‘Foreign agent’ label comes to The Bell

When the Russian authorities began labeling independent media outlets as ‘foreign agents’ last spring, The Bell looked like a likely candidate. Yet, back then, we escaped being given the status. However, the Ministry of Justice on Friday updated its list of media foreign agents for the first time since the start of the ‘special military operation’ – and the list now includes The Bell’s founder, Elizaveta Osetinskaya, and its editor-in-chief, Irina Malkova.

The Bell itself is not on the list and the new status for Osetinskaya and Malkova will not impact our work. However, it means many problems for them as individuals. Every quarter, ‘foreign agents’ are obliged to submit reports of their income and expenses to the Justice Ministry. Any text they publish – including posts on social media – must carry a lengthy disclaimer. Any breach of these onerous rules can lead to a fine, and repeat offenses are potentially a criminal matter. In addition, the Soviet-era term “foreign agent” has strong negative connotations of espionage, making it difficult to find work. You can read more about the practical impact for individuals here.

As usual, no explanation was given for the decision to target Osetinskaya and Malkova. And it’s futile to look for any kind of logic. As well as journalists, new additions to the list Friday included notorious history blogger Evgeny Ponasenkov (likely due to a recent video in which he said Russia should have invaded Italy because Italy is more beautiful than Ukraine). Another addition was regional lawmaker Viktor Vorobyov, a member of the Communist Party, who is Russia’s first elected representative to be named a ‘foreign agent’.

Peter Mironenko

Translated by Andy Potts, edited by Howard Amos