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RA’s Daily Russia News Blast – July 16, 2020

Today in Russia: Hundreds protest against Putin in Moscow; US ramps up Nord Stream 2 sanctions threats; OPEC meeting; US intel sharing helped Russia track down Chechen dissidents; Moscow businessman is Chechen elite’s banker; US cyber attacks since 2018; Defense Ministry claims vaccine is “tested and safe”; Gold exports top gas for first time ever; Where’s the UK’s “Russia Report?”; State Duma endorses 3-day voting window in future election; Pollution investigation launched in Urals; Spotify launches in Russia

Hundreds protested in Moscow against the constitutional reforms that will allow Vladimir Putin to stay in office for potentially another 16 years. Over 100 people were detained.

The US has ramped up threats to sanction entities working on the Nord Stream 2 pipeline. “Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said a sanctions exemption will be removed for a Russian natural-gas pipeline to Germany, paving the way for new penalties to be imposed on the contentious project. Mr. Pompeo said Wednesday that the State Department will lift a proviso that spared the pipeline, known as Nord Stream 2, from a 2017 sanctions measure.

OPEC will hold a meeting today about changes to its oil cut regime. It has my observers worried that cuts will be relaxed at a time when demand for oil continues to lag. OPEC faces “the worst of both worlds” as it weighs whether to do away with the historic oil cuts currently in place:

“Brent hovering around, you know, $40, $45 a barrel at the moment, that’s not good for OPEC,” he said. “That doesn’t get them there economically. And even worse, around $45 a barrel, that’s enough to kind of keep the U.S. oil industry, the shale revolution on its legs. So you’ve kind of got the worst of both worlds for OPEC.“

On the other hand, extending the historic production cuts of 9.7 million bpd that the OPEC and non-OPEC alliance began in May could be seen as self-defeating, pushing prices too high and derailing the fragile demand recovery of the past several weeks.

Bloomberg wrote that OPEC is expecting demand to rebound to levels above pre-pandemic levels next year, with projected increases in demand of
“25% in 2021 to average 29.8 million barrels a day, higher than the level required in 2019, according to a monthly report.”

US intelligence cooperation with Russia may have led to the Russian state tracking down Chechen dissidents in Europe. Business Insider wrote,
Russia routinely exploited a US policy of increased information sharing to target Chechen dissidents, according to three law-enforcement and intelligence officials in Europe. The practice emerged after the Trump administration backed a policy of sharing more secret information with Russia, in hope of strengthening relations.

An Op-Ed in the Washington Post from four ex-CIA officers denounced intelligence cooperation with Russia, writing, “For those of us who worked at the CIA on both Russian and counterterrorism issues over the past 30 years, requests to increase cooperation with Russia’s intelligence services are nothing new. Each of us were involved in serious efforts to work more closely with the Kremlin. Each attempt failed.

Chechen elites have a banker. Meduza wrote, “The investigative news website Proekt reports that Moscow businessman Pavel Krotov is responsible for handling money and property for several powerful Chechen public figures, including republic head Ramzan Kadyrov, his close friend Adam Delikhmanov, and others. Sources told Proekt that Krotov has at least twice obtained access to assets worth hundreds of millions of dollars while acting in the interests of Chechnya’s political elite.

Yahoo! News reported that the Trump Administration signed off on a sweeping authorization for the CIA to carry out cyber attacks.

“The Central Intelligence Agency has conducted a series of covert cyber operations against Iran and other targets since winning a secret victory in 2018 when President Trump signed what amounts to a sweeping authorization for such activities, according to former U.S. officials with direct knowledge of the matter.

The secret authorization, known as a presidential finding, gives the spy agency more freedom in both the kinds of operations it conducts and who it targets, undoing many restrictions that had been in place under prior administrations. The finding allows the CIA to more easily authorize its own covert cyber operations, rather than requiring the agency to get approval from the White House.”

Kommersant wrote [in Russian] that the “US unties its tentacles,” asserting, “According to US media reports, US President Donald Trump has signed a secret decree granting the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) broad powers to conduct offensive cyber operations against a number of countries, including Russia. He allowed the CIA not to coordinate every such step with the White House, relieved the management of the need to collect evidence of the legitimacy of targets, and expanded the range of aggressive methods that could be used in operations. Among the permitted goals are critical infrastructure facilities, on which the international community seems to have agreed not to hit.

Russia’s Ministry of Defense claims that it has a vaccine. It’s safe. It’s been tested. It just hasn’t said if it is effective. Moscow Times wrote of the Ministry’s statement, “The results of the trials “allow us to speak with confidence about the safety and good tolerability of the vaccine,” it said in a statement. The Defense Ministry did not say whether the vaccine was in fact effective but a doctor working on the trials said the volunteers were now protected against the coronavirus.” Bloomberg wrote that Russia’s Defense Ministry said vaccine trials “show promise.”

Russia’s gold exports outpaced gas exports for the first time since 1994. RBC wrote [in Russian] “For the first time in the history of modern Russia, income from gold exports exceeded revenue from gas exports, reaching $ 3.58 billion in April-May. But this growth will not be able to compensate for the decrease in revenues from oil and gas supplies abroad.

The UK’s “Russia Report” – a hotly anticipated Parliamentary report on potential Russian interference in UK politics, and in particular in the Brexit vote – has been continuously delayed but there are renewed calls for its release. DW wrote,

At the core of a 50-page, as yet unreleased, report compiled by the UK’s Parliamentary Intelligence and Security Committee (ISC) over a year ago is the question of to what extent Russian influence held sway over UK political events, such as the 2016 Brexit referendum, and whether senior Conservatives were open to such advances.

The results of the investigation, dubbed the “Russia Report,” were supposed to be released at the end of last year. Cue Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s decision to dissolve parliament after calling a snap election, thus delaying its publication.

Johnson then insisted that the report would be released in “due course.”

Russia’s State Duma has authorized multi-day elections after the constitutional referendum earlier this month was carried out over multiple days, both online and in polling stations. Vedomosti wrote [in Russian],

Voting at elections of all levels in Russia starting in 2021, including the elections to the State Duma scheduled for this year, can last three days, if such a decision is taken by the election organizer. Corresponding amendments to the laws “On basic guarantees of the electoral rights of citizens” and “On elections of deputies of the State Duma” were adopted on July 15 by the Duma in the second, key reading. In addition, the deputies clarified a number of issues on the organization of elections and, in particular, banned the participation of observers from other regions in regional and municipal elections.

Russian prosecutors are inspecting a facility supposed to treat acid runoff from an abandoned Urals mine after videos emerged of streams running orange. Drone footage uploaded last week by an Instagram travel blogger showed a bright-orange landscape near the disused copper-sulphide mine close to the village of Lyovikha,” The Guardian wrote.

Spotify officially launched in Russia, Ukraine, and 11 other countries, and will reach 250 million more people with the expansion.

PHOTO: Protests in Moscow against constitutional changes led to arrests in Moscow. (Yevgeniy Feldman (Meduza).