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RA’s Daily Russia News Blast – July 17, 2020

Today in Russia: Russia trying to steal vaccine secrets; Russian economy won’t fully recover until 2024; UK “Russia Report” to be published; Armenia and Azerbaijan puts Russia in tough spot; Unprecedented surveillance during pandemic; Norilsk mayor claims COVID cases 200% higher than reported; Russia and China rift?

The UK announced that they had evidence that Russia was trying to steal research on a COVID-19 vaccine – charge echoed by the US and Canada. The Associated Press wrote, “Intelligence agencies in the United States, United Kingdom and Canada say the hacking group APT29, also known as Cozy Bear, is attacking academic and pharmaceutical research institutions involved in COVID-19 vaccine development. The same group was implicated in the hacking of Democratic email accounts during the 2016 U.S. presidential election.

Russia’s economy will not recover to pre-pandemic levels until 2024, according to the Economist Intelligence Unit. “Russia will be one of the slowest recovery stories in the world, the EIU predicts, with all the other BRICS nations — Brazil, India, China and South Africa — expected to recover faster,” Moscow Times wrote of the report.

The UK will release the long-awaited report” on interference by Russia in the UK political process:

The Intelligence and Security Committee voted unanimously for it to be released before Parliament’s summer break. The delay in publishing the report, which was completed last year, has led to speculation that it contains details embarrassing for the Conservatives. But the government denies that political considerations were involved. The report is thought to look at a wide range of Russian activity – from traditional espionage to subversion – but the greatest interest is in possible interference in the 2016 and 2017 votes.

Fighting between Azerbaijan and Armenia continued for a fifth day, 16 soldiers killed on both sides. “Calls to stop the fighting have poured in from the United StatesEuropean Union, and the OSCE Minsk Group, the U.S., France-, and Russia-led diplomatic body brokering peace talks between the two sides. All issued similar appeals to “both sides” to stop the fighting, which rankled those on (yes) both sides, each of which blames the other for starting the fighting.” But when the Russia-led Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) of which Armenia is a member but Azerbaijan is not, also took this “both sides” approach, Armenia has found the response lacking. “The issue is that this is effectively an attack on a CSTO member state,” Armenia’s ambassador to Moscow, Vardan Toganyan said [in Russian]. But the CSTO has already been suffering from a credibility problem, and a recent shift in Armenian politics may be pushing the country away from Russia’s orbit:

Those speculations have been heightened since 2018, when Armenia’s “Velvet Revolution” brought in a new government including many pro-Western and anti-Russia officials. Moscow’s concerns were exacerbated when the new authorities’ anti-corruption campaign took aim at Yuri Khachaturov, a former senior Armenian military officer who then became the CSTO’s secretary general. All that has raised questions about the extent to which Russia (which pulls the strings in the CSTO) will be interested in sticking its neck out should Armenia need meaningful support.

Russia deployed “unprecedented” surveillance during the COVID-19 pandemic. Meduza wrote, “The authorities tracked the whereabouts of citizens throughout the country through the centralized processing of geolocation data from mobile phones. The authors of the report also calculated that at the regional level, 61 of Russia’s federal subjects used additional surveillance technologies: 24 regions introduced some form of digital passes, while 16 used analogue passes in the form of certificates. What’s more, 12 regions used face recognition systems to identify quarantine violators. Much of the data was improperly stored, which led to regular leaks.

The mayor of Russia’s Arctic city of Norilsk accused the authorities of underreporting coronavirus cases and turning a blind eye to the severity of the outbreak, the Tayga.info news website reported [in Russian] Thursday. Moscow Times wrote,

Mayor Rinat Akhmetchin painted the dire picture in a letter to the governor of the Krasnoyarsk region where Norilsk is located and the chairman of the regional legislature. He claims that Norilsk has 832 coronavirus cases instead of the officially reported 293, a nearly 200% difference, as well as a fivefold increase in community-acquired pneumonia where patients don’t get tested for Covid-19.

Last month, China held its Belt and Road Initiative meeting by videoconference. 25 countries attended at the foreign minister level, but Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov was conspicuously absent, delivering a written statement and sending an ambassador at large in his place. Foreign Policy wrote that while Russia has never been totally on board with the Chinese Belt and Road initiative,

Moscow’s unwillingness to even put in a proper appearance at the latest forum suggests a subtle change in approach: It no longer feels obliged to bow before Beijing’s Belt and Road. This leaves China in a difficult position. As Beijing continues to roll out infrastructure and investment in Russia’s backyard and undermine its influence in the former Soviet Union, it needs, at the very least, tacit acceptance of the initiative from Russia. The last thing China wants is any hint of backlash from Russia over the Belt and Road, especially at a time when so many of its other partners are pushing back against the initiative. Any step back from Moscow also reveals to the United States and Europe a vulnerability in an otherwise maturing Sino-Russian entente.

PHOTO: Russia stepped up surveillance during the pandemic (Meduza).