Five most important stories on Russia this week
1. What are Russia’s new weapons and why is Putin raising the nuclear stakes?
Vladimir Putin’s normally brief and boring yearly annual address to the Federal Assembly on Thursday unexpectedly turned into a demonstration of Russia’s threat to the U.S. Almost half of the two-hour long speech (which was accompanied by a video presentation of rather poor quality) was dedicated to Russia’s new nuclear weapons which are capable of bypassing American missile defense systems. Putin ended his speech with, “No one listened to us. Listen to us now!”
The U.S. government responded by accusing Russia of breaking international agreements. The Pentagon commented that it is “fully prepared” for the Russian threat. “For the foreseeable future, it looks that the US-Russia agenda will be limited to just one item: war prevention”, — wrote wrote Dmitry Trenin, Director of the Carnegie Moscow Center. How serious are Vladimir Putin’s threats?
Does Russia really have these weapons?
- Vladimir Putin named six, in his words, new types of weapons which will be given to the Russian army
- In reality, three of these actually exist — the Sarmat ballistic missile system, the Avangard hypersonic warhead, and Kinzhal, the aviation hypersonic rocket, Russian military experts say. It also appears that there is an underwater nuclear drone. However, we have known for at least two years about the existence of all of these systems, with the exception of Avangard.
- The cruise missile with a nuclear engine and unlimited flight range is at best in the prototype stage, and the engine itself most likely does not exist yet, according to all the military experts who spoke with The Bell. The same applies to the new laser weapons.
Are they capable of bypassing U.S. missile defense?
- Yes, believes Russian expert Vladimir Frolov, primarily because America’s missile defense system is not designed to block an attack from Russia’s nuclear weapons, but rather to intercept rockets from North Korea and Iran.
- It is difficult to classify the new Russian inventions as forces of deterrence — for example, in the event of a nuclear war, the underwater drone would take several days to reach its target, and it would be impossible to recall the drone as there is no communication channel with the drone at the point.
Why the world should care
The president’s warlike speech had two clear goals. First, it was a pre-election speech. The presidential elections are coming up on March 18, and there is a reason why the yearly address to parliament was moved for the first time in many years from January to March. At the same time, during the first half of his speech, Putin spoke about issues which would appeal to liberal voters and the middle class — a reduction of the state’s role in the economy, support for start-ups, and modernization of municipal infrastructure.
The part about rockets was designed to make up for the effect of the first half of the speech on “ordinary voters”, although it is highly likely that in this case the rockets totally dominated everything else, writes Alexander Baunov, editor-in-chief of the Carnegie Center’s Russian website, in an opinion piece for Russia’s largest news organization, RBC.
However, Putin’s message was primarily addressed at the West. It has been clear for some times that one of his main goals is to get the U.S. to speak with him as an equal (a good description of this in English here). This is still the main driver and Putin’s goal in attempting to demonstrate Russia’s military might. But with his speech on March 1, Putin showed for the first time since taking power 18 years ago that a scenario for nuclear war with the West exists. The most important thing is that this demonstration doesn’t go too far.
2. The Bell scoop: Russian mercenary army financier made an oil deal with Syria just before clash with U.S. troops.
The Bell has learned that a company linked to Yevgeny Prigozhin, sponsor of the Wagner private military company and the St.Petersburg “Troll Factory”, signed a deal with the Syrian government just before the Wagner army attacked American forces in Deir ez-Zor.
According to a draft of the agreement with the Syrian government and Syria’s state owned General Petroleum Corp., Evro Polis was going to take upon itself “the responsibility of liberating” and military protection of the oil and gas fields on some Syrian territories, and begin production on these fields together with General Petroleum Corp.
- Evro Polis entered into the preliminary agreement with the Syrian government as early as the end of 2016. It is unclear which terms were included in the final legally binding agreement, but it was signed around January 2018, not long before soldiers from the Wagner private military company reportedly clashed with American troops in the oil and gas province of Deir ez-Zor, The Bell spoke with two sources from the Russian side, familiar with the company’s negotiations.
- As a result of the attack, according to different sources, an estimated ten to more than 200 people were killed or injured. According to the latest report by Der Spiegel, there were only 20 Russian casualties.
- At the very end of January, the Russian Ministry of Energy announced that it had signed with Syria a “road map” for the repair, modernization, and construction of new energy sector facilities in Syria.
- Shortly after the attack, a Russian military source stated that Russian commanders in Syria did not authorize an offensive operation on the oil fields, and that the operation itself was seen as “a dangerous amateur performance”. But The Washington Post wrote, citing American intelligence reports, that just before the attack, Prigozhin was in close contact with both Russian and Syrian government representatives.
Why the world should care
The story behind the oil aspirations of Wagner’s financier illustrates that Russia’s external political initiatives are almost always driven by an underlying commercial interest.
3. The strange incident of cocaine in the Russian Embassy in Argentina raised many questions directed at Russian authorities
This week’s hot topic of discussion in Russia was the discovery of an enormous amount of cocaine in the school attached to the Russian Embassy in Buenos Aires – almost 400 kilograms of cocaine were found worth an estimated $50 million. Argentinian and Russian authorities announced on February 22 that they had successfully completed an operation to close this narcotrafficking channel. They also said that Russian diplomats didn’t have anything to do with the operation. However, just after the official statement was released, inconsistencies became apparent.
What the authorities claim
- 12 suitcases filled with cocaine were found at the end of 2016 in the school by employees of the Russian Embassy and this discovery was immediately reported to local police. Argentinian special forces switched the cocaine for flour, added GPS trackers and installed cameras, and waited until the owners of the cocaine would attempt to ship it to Russia.
- In December 2017, the shipment was sent to Moscow, and after it landed, two suspects were arrested in Argentina and three in Russia. One of the suspects, a former head of household with the Russian Embassy in Buenos Aires, according to investigators, brought the cocaine to the school.
- The owner of the cocaine shipment was identified by investigators as businessman Andrey Kovalev, a resident of Germany. Kovalev was detained yesterday in the suburbs of Berlin by German police.
The main inconsistencies
- A secret airplane. In a photo taken by the Argentinian authorities, the aircraft’s registration number is visible. This particular airplane belongs to the fleet of airplanes used by the Russian presidential administration and high ranking Russian government officials. This particular plane is known to have landed in Buenos Aires in December 2017. But the fleet strongly denies that this was its plane, and called the Argentinian photos fakes. This is surprising, as the whole incident was presented as a successful operation conducted by special forces. .
- Careless security. The Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs insists that none of its employees, except for the former head of household, participated in any narcotics trafficking. But following the official statement, a Russian citizen whose children attend the embassy school in Buenos Aires, described the security system in the school. From his description, it is clear that it would have been impossible to leave the suitcases in the school without embassy security knowing about them.
- A strange suspect. Drug lords who move $50 million shipments usually hide in the jungle, defended by their own private armies, while this supposed owner of ambassadorial cocaine gave an interview from Europe and claimed that his suitcases were in fact filled with coffee and cognac, not cocaine.
Why the world should care
Did Russian diplomats and the FSB know about the embassy’s narcotrafficking channel? It’s not clear. So if there are Russian diplomatic missions in your city, you don’t have to avoid them just yet. It is highly likely that all of the contradictions in this case could be explained by the theory of ordinary Russian sloppiness — and a total lack of coherence on the part of Russian authorities.
4. A Russian investor profited on the deal between Amazon and Ring
This week, Amazon announced it’s second largest ever acquisition, the purchase of Ring, a producer of smart locks. The deal is valued at $1.2-1.8 billion, and Russian investors were also involved. One of these investors in Ring was the fund owned by the former CEO of one of Russia’s largest holdings, Mail.Ru Group, Dmitry Grishin. Grishin might have earned up to $90 million on his investment in Ring.
- Grishin was born in the village of Kapustin Yar, the home of one of the Soviet Union’s largest nuclear test sites. He claims to have begun programming with the age of 5 or 6. He earned his first money with the computer game Alfa Romeo which he designed based on the picture on a Turbo chewing gum insert.
- By the end of 1998, Grishin began to work as a remote programmer for the American developer, Axiom International. At the beginning of the 2000s, Grishin developed the first Russian online auction, Molotok, which didn’t become Russia’s eBay. In 2003, he became the CEO of Mail.ru, which was then owned by Yury Milner, another investor who has subsequently become very successful in the U.S.
- While still working for Mail.ru, in 2012, Grishin created Grishin Robotics, a fund whose primary goal was to invest in robotics technology, artificial intelligence and internet projects. He initially put $25 million in the fund, 15% of his net worth at the time, which he earned via Mail.ru’s London IPO.
- Grishin is now 39. Several years ago, he was named in MIT’s ranking of “35 Innovators Under 35”. “When the internet started to take off in Russia, he was in the right place at the right time. Now he is trying to do the same thing with robots,” the MIT Technology Review described Grishin.
- In addition to the Ring, Grishin’s fund has 18 other projects in its portfolio. Together with Alibaba Entrepreneurs Fund, Grishin invested $9 million in the Hong Kong bike rental company gobee.bike, and $14 million in Wonder, a gaming start-up, in which Shakira is also a co-investor along with her husband, professional soccer player, Gerard Piqué. Other investments include a company providing small satellites which collect data from space, NanoSatisfi (now Spire), and an electronic building block kit, littleBits Electronics.
Why the world should care
If not for the Amazon deal, one could conclude from the news this week that Russia is just nuclear weapons, greedy owners of mercenary armies and drug lords with diplomatic protection. But, although Grishin’s hometown is a nuclear test site, his example shows us that Russia is also home to talented programmers, capable of achieving real success in innovative businesses.
5. Video of the week: Presidential election debates in Russia
Russian television maintains the image that there is a real presidential election campaign in the country, and hosts televised debates between the candidates. The only real candidate, Vladimir Putin, never took part in any election debates (why would he?) and this time around he is also not participating. It is difficult to take the campaign seriously, because likely the most shocking episode of the campaign will remain Tuesday’s scandalous fight between veteran Russian politician, Vladimir Zhirinovsky, and moderate opposition candidate, TV host and socialite, Ksenia Sobchak.
Why the world should care
Many in the West write about the Russian presidential election campaign in a serious tone; this video will help them to see the situation for what it is.
Peter Mironenko, The Bell editor
This newsletter is made with the support of the Investigative Reporting Program at UC Berkeley.