RA’s Daily Russia News Blast – Feb 9, 2016

TODAY: Surprise military drill in southwest mobilises thousands of troops; NATO envoy warns again of retaliation against expansion; Merkel ‘horrified’ by deaths in Syria, Turkey says Russian presence there amounts to occupation; state to reduce holdings in VTB; Pugachev faces jail sentence in UK; Putin welcomes leader of Bahrain.

The Defence Ministry announced surprise military exercises yesterday across Russia’s southwest region, testing the military’s full combat readiness and unnerving some neighbours.  The drills mobilised thousands of troops and hundreds of warplanes.  Without going into specifics, Russia’s NATO envoy again warned that Moscow would respond to a buildup of alliance forces near its borders, saying that NATO’s actions ‘cannot be left without a military-technical response‘.  German Chancellor Angela Merkel expressed horror at the suffering being caused in Syria by Russian and Syrian air strikes which, she said, are affecting ‘tens of thousands’.  The Foreign Ministry says the Russian air force is aimed exclusively at suppressing terrorism in Syria, and that it has seen no proof of civilian deaths caused by Russian forces.  The Turkish President described the presence of Russian troops in Syria as an occupation.  Russian companies are gearing up to get back into post-sanctions Iran, says the New York Times.

President Vladimir Putin signed an order allowing the state to reduce its holdings in VTB Bank to less than half of the bank’s total stock whilst still keeping it as a strategic asset.  Intercommerz, a mid-sized bank, is the latest to have its licence revoked by the Central Bank (at this point almost a daily occurrence).  Ex-senator Sergei Pugachev, formerly known as ‘the Kremlin’s banker’, was found by London’s High Court to have breached a number of court orders and could be jailed as part of a litigation case brought by a Russian company; Pugachev says he has faced an ongoing campaign of intimidation.  Brian Whitmore discusses the allegations of an investigation against another former Kremlin ally, Vladimir Yakunin, noting that no one so close to Putin has ever come under such scrutiny.  $152 billion worth of financial transactions were classified as ‘suspicious’ last year in Russia; personal debts rose 30%.

Putin met with the ruler of Bahrain yesterday, hailing the country as Russia’s ‘important partner in the Gulf and the entire Middle East’.  The pair exchanged lavish gifts (of a horse for a sword) during a positive meeting, which Sergei Lavrov said demonstrated a mutual trust.  The 182nd birthday of the father of the periodic table, Dmitri Mendeleev, was marked with a Google Doodle yesterday.

PHOTO: Russian President Vladimir Putin, right, presents Bahrain’s King Hamad bin Issa Al Khalifa with Khadzhibek, a horse with an ancient Central Asian breed called Akhal-Teke during their meeting in the Bocharov Ruchei residence in the Black Sea resort of Sochi, Russia, Monday, Feb. 8, 2016. (Mikhail Klimentyev/Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP)