The major stories you need
to understand Russia

An insider view, in 5 minutes

And what were the Russian private contractors fighting for

Photo: Ministry of Defense of the Russian Federation
Photo: Ministry of Defense of the Russian Federation

1. What were the real losses in the first Russia-U.S. clash in Syria

What happened

Last week, the Russian private military company Wagner Group suffered possibly the heaviest losses in the whole Russian operation in Syria in a battle with the U.S. Air Force over an oil refinery in Deir ez-Zor. The Russian army was officially withdrawn from Syria at the end of 2017, but paramilitary mercenary forces, officially not linked with the government, have stayed.

The dispute about how many Russians were killed

The numbers range from 5 dead and several wounded (a late official acknowledgement by the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs) to 100 dead and 200 wounded (the latest report by Reuters).

  • Russian official and semi-official sources appear to be underestimating the death toll. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs on February 15, a week after the battle, was the first to admit that there were Russian casualties. “5 people, who allegedly were Russian citizens, may have been killed,” said  MFA press officer Maria Zakharova. A day earlier, a source in the Russian military said (Russian) that there were 11 dead.
  • This reaction only came after a February 13 report by Bloomberg which said that more than 200 contract soldiers were killed in the attack, most of them Russians. The same day, The New York Times reported 100-200 Russian casualties. On February 15, Reuters reported 100 killed and 200 wounded.
  • Reports by Western media were based on accounts by either fellow private military contractors or military doctors who were treating the wounded, flown back to Russia on military cargo planes. The information on casualties is spreading quickly among the Russian paramilitary community, but it is also not trustworthy, so these estimates may also be exaggerated.
  • The official figure of only 5 Russian citizens dead may have a good explanation, says (Russian, Telegram app needed) Maxim Solopov, a military reporter for Kommersant. First, after an airborne attack, identification of bodies takes time, and until then they can’t be officially proclaimed Russian. Second, a significant part of the Russian mercenary forces in Syria consists of the residents of unrecognized states, such as Transnistria, Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics.

What they were fighting for

  • Kommersant’s semi-official sources said that the attack, which targeted the U.S. and Kurdish controlled military base and oil refinery, was commissioned by “local entrepreneurs supporting Bashar Assad,” and had not been approved by  the Russian military command.
  • However, the Wagner Group is reportedly closely linked to the Russian government, and its fighters have been trained at a  Ministry of Defense facility.
  • In 2017, the media reported that a company owned by the main sponsor of the Wagner Group, Evgeny Prigozhin, had signed an agreement with Bashar Assad’s government giving him a share in Syrian oil export income in exchange for the military protection of the oilfields.

What is Wagner Group

  • Despite a constitutional ban, Russia has a long history of private military companies, which have unofficial backing from the Ministry of Defense. Wagner Group is the most famous. It fought in Ukraine, Syria and now in Sudan.
  • The sponsor of the group is Evgeny Prigozhin, owner of the St. Petersburg internet Troll factory heavily involved in the 2016 U.S. presidential election. Today, Prigozhin and his associates were indicted by Special Counsel Robert Mueller, accused them of defrauding the U.S. government by interfering with the political process.
  • In the Syrian civil war, the Russian military was not officially involved in ground operations. But the Wagner Group was reported to be in the firing line at crucial moments like the siege of Aleppo, and proved to be way more effective than the officially fighting Assad army. Here’s the most detailed report on Wagner’s connection to the Russian government (in Russian).
  • Private military is officially banned in Russia. Under current law, members of the companies face a prison sentence of 4 to 7 years. This partly explains scarce comments (Russian) of the officials and the government controlled media.

Why the world should care

The battle at Deir-ez-Zor appears to be the first direct clash between the Russian and American soldiers since the war in Vietnam. Fortunately, both sides don’t regard the Russian private contractors as a government directed force.

2. YouTube and Instagram under threat of ban in Russia after corruption sex scandal

What happened

The Internet supervision agency Roskomnadzor was about to block YouTube and Instagram after a court ruling that  the publication of videos of the Russian deputy prime minister on a yacht with billionaire Oleg Deripaska violated their privacy. The videos were taken by an escort in 2016, and brought to public attention by the opposition leader Alexey Navalny.

  • Navalny published the photos and videos on February 8. The court ruled them inappropriate the next day. The ruling demanded that all  that  published the visuals remove them  or risk having their  websites blocked in Russia, including Instagram (29 million users in Russia) and YouTube (14 million).
  • Russian news websites were first to obey the ruling. Facebook (owner of Instagram) and Google (owner of YouTube) were given a deadline to delete the videos of February 14.
  • Eventually, Facebook blocked (Russian) the videos on Instagram on February 15 with the explanation that the company complies with the laws of the countries it works in. YouTube videos are still available, although Roskomnadzor said it was in “productive talks” with Google and hoped it would also comply with the ruling.
  • The only website actually blocked was Alexey Navalny’s, but his staff quickly found a way to bypass the barrier. By now, 60-70% internet users in Russia can access it. This casts serious doubt on the ability of the Russian government to exercise internet censorship, at least at the Chinese level.

What we think

A ban on Youtube an Instagram was initially hard to believe in. Both services are highly popular in Russia and have mostly nothing todo with the opposition. The government would never do that just a month before the presidential election. As for Navalny’s website, we can only guess if it was really a flaw in the Not So Great Russian Firewall, or a government decision not to provoke Navalny’s supporters.

A coincidence

This Friday, it turned out that Oleg Deripaska is also in the center of a corporate feud with two other oligarchs in Russia’s biggest mining company Norilsk Nickel. The major shareholder of the $28bn mining company Vladimir Potanin owns 30.1% and opts to buy out 6.3% from another oligarch Roman Abramovich. Deripaska has 28.8%, and also has too much debt to buy Abramovich’s stake. Still he doesn’t want to cede more of the company to Potanin, so Deripaska sued both of his partners in London to block the deal.

Why the world should care

The situation provides a great example how corruption, big business and internet freedom are closely linked and balanced. We’ll be following the next stages.

3. The Bell scoop: What Putin’s alleged confessor thinks about Putin and Stalin

What happened

Tikhon Shevkunov, bishop of the Russian Orthodox Church, often referred to as Vladimir Putin’s personal confessor and spiritual advisor, gave an exclusive interview to The Bell. Shevkunov is considered one of the most powerful people in the church and the leader of its ultra-conservative faction. The independent TV channel Dozhd reported that negative reports from Shevkunov could have been one of the reasons for the arrest of Russia’s most acclaimed theatre director Kirill Serebrennikov.

Bishop Shevkunov is believed to have strong ideological influence on Putin. Another proof of that came in December 2017, when Putin was officially registered as a presidential candidate at a patriotic historical park created by Shevkunov with $160 million in government funding.

  • On Putin’s 4th presidential term: The people elect him. What else can we say? In fact, the longer a politician is in power, the harder it is for him. If the acting leader wins a free and fair election, and the country calls upon him for public service once again, it gives the leader not only special trust, but puts a great burden on him, which must be carried by this particular man, here and now.
  • Why Putin chose Shevkunov’s exhibition to announce his candidacy: Any candidate wants to be presented to the audience in the context of Russian history, which is so important to people today. Our historical parks have record-breaking attendance. By the way, [the opposition leader] Alexey Navalny also asked to rent our historical park to announce his candidacy. But two presidential candidate announcements in a row would be immodest for us, too much. So we have chosen our candidate.
  • On his role in the arrest of Kirill Serebrennikov: This is libel. I haven’t seen a single performance or film directed by him, and I wouldn’t want to, as I don’t like the direction of his work. But it doesn’t mean that this aesthetic difference may have become a reason for me even to wish, not to say to facilitate, his prosecution. If I would have even hinted to Vladimir Putin to jail Serebrennikov, this would have become the last time I met Vladimir Putin. But I realize that the creative class needs somebody to perform the role of the influential obscurant close to the government.
  • On the ban in Russia of Armando Ianucci’s “Death of Stalin”: I’ve seen the trailer. The film has evidently nothing to do with high comedy. It is a rather flat and dumb propaganda job. Its target is surely not Stalin, but Russia and its people. The figures of Stalin, Zhukov and other Soviet leaders are disgusting, as are the people who are ruled by those ghouls. We are being imposed that the philosophy of Charlie Hebdo is the only one. Do we have to oppose this position? Absolutely.
  • On Joseph Stalin: This is a figure both appalling and tragic. I’m sure that no victories and no successes in nation building would ever give an excuse for the blood of innocent victims. In our historical parks, we also have a separate section on Vladimir Lenin, with his quotes on shootings and hangings, execution of hostages, the whole Bolsheviks’ policy of terror against the Russian people. It is startling how in the early 20th century, different people who loved Russia and wished it well, did everything to bring this terrible figure to power. The events of 1917 showed how the Russian creative class turned up childish, blind, dumb and irresponsible in terms of governing the nation.

Why the world should care

In politics, and especially in foreign policy, Vladimir Putin is not always driven only by rational considerations. The annexation of Crimea was at least partly explained by his aspiration to firmly take his place in Russian history. Thus, it is important to understand who influences Putin ideologically.

4. Putin’s adviser on Ukraine warns of new matriarchat in a Valentine’s day op-ed

What happened

On February 14, Putin’s adviser Vladislav Surkov wrote a lyrical and somewhat crazy article about feminism and women in modern society for The Russian Pioneer, a publication run by Putin’s favorite journalist Andrey Kolesnikov.

In the 2000s, Surkov was the Kremlin’s main ideologist. He lost his job after mass protests in Moscow in 2011, but in 2013, shortly before the beginning of the conflict in Donbass, he became Vladimir Putin’s personal adviser on Ukraine. Surkov has a reputation as a “postmodernist intellectual,” which is unusual for a Russian official.

It is difficult to convey the intended ironic styling of the article in English, but here are some of the most colorful parts:

  • “Look at the West: the matriarchat is coming. Women are taking power. They have become prime ministers, ministers, mayors in great countries. There’s more and more female entrepreneurs, administrators. Hollywood movies which now carry priestly functions and create new hierarchies, downplay men and elevate women. Even the Last Jedi in the latest Star Wars movie is a woman.”
  • “The campaign against men harassing women in the West is just the beginning. The next step would be a demand by women to switch roles: now it’s us who would be harassing! After all, somebody has to take up the initiative.”
  • “There is a theory, not widely publicized (wrong time!), that the rise of women is a symptom of decay. It is hard to judge if this theory is correct. It may be easily refuted. But its supporters are stubborn, and they believe they have a lot of examples.” [Lots of historical examples of women coming to power in doomed empires]
  • “The rise of women to power is surely not the reason, but a symptom. Political systems call upon women, when they are exhausted after periods of quick growth. In the West, matriarchal democracy comes to replace the liberal one. Feminine populism has become the most effective political doctrine for those who seek success in politics. All the signs of another “Decline of the West” are here.”
  • “Only the chosen (or outcast) ones know that decay always precedes the new ascent. They don’t follow what has already fallen. They have passed the steering wheel of the useless and broken-down old system to women, and now they’re busy with a real man’s job — inventing and constructing a new reality, while their female companions rule the old one.”
  • “Tomorrow, everything around will be man-made once again. In any family there are situations which put the husband to a dead end. After arguments with his wife and children, the man confines himself to his room in confusion. The family is temporarily ruled by matriarchate. After a cigarette and 30 push-ups, the man returns and the classical order is restored. Life goes on.”
  • “In Russia, feminism has not spread as wide as in the West. We are either not keeping up with the world (just as always), or outpacing it. This suggests the only suitable strategy: delay, elude, don’t take the fight. And love.”

Why the world should care

It may sound weird (and it does, really), but the author is actually the person representing Russian policy on Ukraine, and was largely responsible for the Kremlin’s internal politics in the 2000s, when the current regime was being formed. Everything in the article is a pose, and his words may actually give more understanding of Russian politics than any professional report.

Peter Mironenko