Weekly 1 November 2022

Sobchak Out

Stooge or Dissident? Ex-presidential candidate Sobchak flees Russia

Police detained Kirill Sukhanov, the commercial director of Sobchak’s media company, and Ariana Romanovskaya, the editor of one of Sobchak’s Telegram channels, on Tuesday. The following morning, they searched Sobchak’s home outside Moscow, although by that time she was already on her way to the border. State news agency TASS quoted a source who said that Sobchak bought plane tickets to both Dubai and to Turkey “to confuse our operatives.” As police officers waited for her to arrive at Moscow’s Vnukovo airport, Sobchak slipped out of the country through Belarus to Lithuania on an Israeli passport.

A video of Sobchak leaving Russia time stamped 13:38 soon emerged. State news agency RIA Novosti reported Sobchak’s departure just half an hour later, strongly suggesting that the security services knew exactly where she was and could have arrested her at any time.

In court later that day it emerged that Sobchak’s colleagues were being charged with blackmailing Sergei Chemezov, head of Rostec, the powerful state corporation that controls much of Russia’s defense industry. According to investigators, Sobchak’s colleagues demanded 11 million rubles ($175,000) from Chemezov in return for deleting compromising material from one of their Telegram channels and blocking further negative reports. If found guilty, Sukhanov and Romanovskaya face up to 15 years in jail.

Who is Ksenia Sobchak?

Daughter of former St. Petersburg governor Anatoly Sobchak, Ksenia Sobchak is one of the most famous and controversial figures in the Russian media. In the early 1990s, her father appointed Putin as his deputy in Petersburg. The current president’s loyalty to Anatoly Sobchak is well-known (one of Putin’s favorite boasts involves the tale of how he smuggled Sobchak out of Russia to avoid legal action in 1997). The same loyalty has long been thought to extend to Sobchak’s family, too. Putin is widely believed to be godfather to Ksenia, although she insists that he attended her christening merely as a guest.

In the mid-2000s, Sobchak presented Russia’s best-known reality show, Dom-2. Her luxurious lifestyle and family connections led to her being dubbed “the Russian Paris Hilton.” For those angry at the unearned wealth of the country’s elite, Sobchak became a hate figure.

In the early 2010s, Sobchak moved into politics amid the last genuine large-scale protests against Putin. In late 2017, Sobchak surprised everyone when she announced that she would stand for president. The only “liberal” candidate allowed onto the ballot paper, Sobchak’s candidacy attracted fierce criticism from other opposition leaders, particularly supporters of anti-corruption campaigner Alexei Navalny, who was not allowed to run. Sobchak was widely accused of running as a token opposition candidate.

Sobchak ultimately came fourth in the 2018 election with just 1.68% of the vote (Putin took 76.7%). Shortly afterwards, she was offered a job on state TV for the first time in eight years. Sobchak remained a full-time presenter for Channel 1 until last year.

Today, Sobchak’s media holding is her focus. It was set-up in 2018 with the launch of Ostorozhno, Sobchak — a YouTube channel. In 2021, she added a Telegram channel, Ostorozhno Novosti, which quickly became a popular news source.

Immediately after Russia invaded Ukraine, Sobchak announced her opposition to the war. Subsequently, her outlets continued to cover the war in depth, albeit cautiously. For example, her Telegram channel uses the official term “special military operation” for the war, and, in April, was largely silent about evidence of civilian killings by the Russian army near Kyiv.

Courting controversy

The criminal case involving Sobchak and her flight to Lithuania — a hub of exiled Russian dissenters — sparked derision from many. Supporters of Navalny immediately claimed it had been orchestrated by the Kremlin to give Sobchak credibility in opposition circles.

Exiled journalists largely refuse to see Sobchak as a comrade in arms. “I can’t describe this as pressure on the free press,” wrote former Ekho Moskvy presenter Alexander Plyushchev. And many opposition figures were outraged by a New York Times tweet describing Sobchak as “one of the best-known remaining critics of President Vladimir Putin.”

Editor-in-chief of independent media outlet Mediazona, Sergei Smirnov, had a less conspiracy-fuelled view. “It seems that Sobchak was one of the last who tried to keep a foot in both camps, but in 2022, that whole set-up went to hell,” he wrote.

Although there are many intriguing details in the story of Sobchak flight from Russia, most can be explained without resorting to conspiracy theories.

  • The story that Sobchak managed to evade security forces by buying multiple plane tickets does not ring true. It’s likely that the authorities could have prevented her from leaving if they wanted to: the Kremlin usually prefers to put pressure on opposition figures based outside of Russia, rather than jailing them at home.
  • The people behind the criminal case involving Sobchak had excellent relations with her until recently. Chemezov, who reported the alleged blackmail attempt, funded Sobchak’s 2018 election campaign; Vasily Brovko, head of Rostec’s PR, who has testified, is the husband and business partner of Sobchak’s one-time friend, TV presenter Tina Kandelaki. But this is hardly proof of a grand conspiracy. Chemezov was behind previous criminal cases against Telegram channel owners, who often earn money by publishing compromising information. It’s also possible that Chemezov, whom Putin has personally blamed for the Russian defense industry’s “modest results” since the start of the war, is starting to feel the heat. Perhaps he is trying to shed his old image as a patron to Russia’s liberals, which may have been an acceptable quirk prior to 2022, but is unacceptable in wartime.

Why the world should care

The “Sobchak case” is a good illustration of how the war is changing the relationship between the authorities and the elites. The nuances that permitted Putin’s goddaughter to attend protest rallies are gone.

What does Russia’s withdrawal from the Ukraine grain deal mean?

A large drone attack Saturday on Russia’s Black Sea Fleet was cited by Russia the same day as its reason for withdrawing from a UN-brokered deal to export grain from Ukraine. Putin had spoken about the possibility of Russia backing out of the agreement at the start of September. However, the other parties to the deal intend to carry on without Russia.

The attack on Sevastopol

Drones attacked Russia’s Black Sea Fleet early Saturday morning. The Admiral Makarov, which became the flagship of the Black Sea Fleet earlier this year following the loss of the Moskva in a Ukrainian missile strike, was ostensibly one of the targets.

Russia’s Defense Ministry said that the attack involved seven airborne drones and nine underwater drones. It further claimed that preparations for the attack were conducted under the guidance of British specialists. The UK called this a “lie of epic proportions.”

The Defense Ministry described the damage from the attack as “insignificant,” saying that only the minesweeper Ivan Golubets sustained damage. There is no independent assessment of the effect of the strike on Russian ships, nor has there been any acknowledgement from Ukraine that it organized the attack. Anton Gerashchenko, advisor to Ukraine’s interior minister, said that the Admiral Makarov was the most likely target, while several Russian pro-war commentators suggested that one frigate sustained slight damage, the Ivan Golubets was seriously damaged and coastal infrastructure was also hit.

Regardless of the damage, this was a nasty shock for the Black Sea Fleet: cheap drones were able to break through defenses and get inside the fleet’s main base.

Later, Russia’s Defense Ministry said that the wreckage of the drones had been retrieved from the water and its navigational data decoded. “One of the devices could have been launched from the civilian vessels chartered by Kyiv or its Western patrons to export agricultural products from Ukraine’s sea ports,” the ministry suggested.

Leaving the deal?

A few hours later, Russia’s Foreign Ministry announced Russia would back out of the grain deal, suggesting the safety of civilian ships in the Black Sea could no longer be guaranteed.

However, it soon became clear that, apart from Russia, none of the other parties to the grain deal were planning to withdraw. Turkey, Ukraine and the UN responded by announcing they would continue to escort ships along the “grain corridor.” Turkey, the guarantor of the deal, was continuing because Russia had only withdrawn from escorting vessels — it has not withdrawn its signature from the agreement not to attack civilian vessels.

Putin said Monday that Russia had not withdrawn from the deal, but “suspended” its participation. And the Defense Ministry said Russia would not rejoin until it received guarantees ships in the “grain corridor” would not be used to attack Russian vessels.

Ukraine, Turkey and the UN agreed safe passage for 14 vessels through the corridor Monday – 12 leaving Ukraine and two in the opposite direction. At the time of writing, there were no reports of any incidents.

The wrangling over the deal immediately sent grain prices shooting upward, but March highs are still far off — the markets are apparently waiting to see if Russia will attempt to halt shipping in the Black Sea entirely.

What happens next?

For now, it appears that Russia is taking a time-out. Deputy Foriegn Minister Andrei Rudenko said that the next steps would be taken after analyzing the situation. He added that Russia is counting on its contacts in Ankara. More Russian missile strikes on Ukraine’s energy grid Monday were likely an indirect response to the Sevastopol attack (Russia launched 50 cruise missiles at Ukrainian cities — the biggest such attack since Oct. 10).

Experts interviewed by Kommersant believe that closing the corridor will influence grain prices. However, even if Ukraine’s exports ceased completely, the global market would lose just 5% (7-8 million tons) of grain for the remainder of the season. Russian producers would benefit from this: Russia enjoyed a record harvest and prices are high.

Why the world should care

If the flow of ships carrying Ukrainian grain continues in the current “gray zone” — i.e. without clear Russian guarantees of safe shipping — the “grain corridor” will become another potential flashpoint that could lead to military escalation. That is particularly true in the event of the sinking of a merchant vessel, whether accidental or deliberate.

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