RA’s Daily Russia News Blast – July 24, 2020

Today in Russia: Trump talks to Putin; Pompeo thinks Russia may help US vis a vis China, Russia not so sure; Putin says Russia-China relations reaching unprecedented heights; An interesting election race in Novosibirsk; Sexual harassment and #MeToo inside independent media outlets; Navalny uncovers more questionable riches by officials, this time by Far East envoy; Russia as mediator between Azerbaijan and Armenia?; Mail.ru capitalized on the pandemic; UK and US say Russia launched “weapon” into space

US President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin had a phone conversation yesterday in which – according to official readouts – the two discussed arms control, Iran’s nuclear program, and COVID-19. According to a White House spokesperson, Trump “reiterated his hope of avoiding an expensive three-way arms race between China, Russia, and the United States and looked forward to progress on upcoming arms control negotiations in Vienna.” China has refused to participate in any arms control negotiations with Russia and the US, despite strenuous urging and pressure from the US side.

Despite this being the first time the two leaders have spoken since public revelations of Russian bounty payments in Afghanistan, Trump apparently did not bring it up with his Russian counterpart. Dmitry Trenin, director of the Carnegie Moscow Center, tweeted yesterday that US-Russian relations and calls between the two presidents are in different universes, writing the official read-outs of the call “appear as a parallel universe with no connection to real Russia-US relations.”

US Secretary of State delivered a speech yesterday entitled Communist China and the Free World’s Future” that has been dubbed by some prominent China experts “the day engagement died” between the two world powers. Pompeo expressed some optimism about the role Russia could play:

Does Russia present an opportunity now to the United States to coax them into the battle to be relentlessly candid about the Chinese Communist Party?

SECRETARY POMPEO: So I do think there’s that opportunity. That opportunity is born of the relationship, the natural relationship between Russia and China, and we can do something as well. There are places where we need to work with Russia. Today – or tomorrow, I guess it is, our teams will be on the ground with the Russians working on a strategic dialogue to hopefully create the next generation of arms control agreements like Reagan did. It’s in our interest, it’s in Russia’s interest. We’ve asked the Chinese to participate. They’ve declined to date. We hope they’ll change their mind.

It’s these kind of things – these proliferation issues, these big strategic challenges – that if we work alongside Russia, I’m convinced we can make the world safer. And so there – I think there is a place for us to work with the Russians to achieve a more likely outcome of peace not only for the United States but for the world.

Official Russian state outlet TASS reported on Pompeo’s remarks dismissively, noting that Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has emphasized that “an escalation of tensions between the USA and China is not in Russia’s interest, nor is it in the interest of other states.”

President Putin said that China-Russia relations are fantastic – at an all time high, in fact. Putin said this at what has been dubbed the “United Russia – Communist Party of China Dialogue” held by videoconference. According to the Kremlin’s official write-up, Putin declared:

Russian-Chinese relations have reached an unprecedentedly high level and are rightfully considered an example of interstate cooperation in the modern world. Coordination of efforts between Moscow and Beijing in addressing pressing issues on the regional and global agenda is contributing to international security and stability.

China’s official outlet Xinhua also praised the meeting between the two countries’ ruling parties and shared warm words about China-Russia relations, although Xinhua’s commentary was considerably more muted than that from TASS and President Putin. Chinese leader Xi Jinping “expressed his warm congratulations on the meeting” and said,

since the outbreak of COVID-19, China and Russia have supported and helped each other, and worked together to tide over the difficulties and oppose external interferences, giving new strategic connotations to bilateral cooperation, fully demonstrating the profound friendship between the two peoples, and reflecting the high level and distinctiveness of China-Russia relations in the new era.

In Novosibirsk, Siberia’s largest city, legislative and governor elections are more interesting than the Kremlin may have hoped. Meduza wrote [in Russian] that:

United Russia, under the leadership of Governor Andrei Travnikov, and the Communist Party of the Russian Federation, led by the mayor of the regional capital, Anatoly Lokt. The opposition coalition Novosibirsk-2020 by Sergei Boyko, head of the local headquarters of Alexei Navalny, became a serious third force in the elections. At the same time, the communists and members of the coalition suspect each other of secret cooperation with United Russia. Meduza’s special correspondent Andrei Pertsev went to Novosibirsk, where the authorities and the opposition are working out technologies for the elections to the State Duma in 2021.

Russian independent media is facing its own #MeToo movement as sexual harassment allegations come to light. Moscow Times wrote that a sexual harassment incident at Meduza that led to the resignation of the outlet’s editor Ivan Kolpakov sparked a wider discussion within independent media. The outlet Novaya Gazeta “has blazed a trail by instituting a sexual harassment policy after taking internal accusations of misconduct seriously. Some independent outlets are following suit.”

Alexei Navalny, the anti-corruption activist and politician has uncovered lavish real estate owned by Deputy Prime Minister and Far East envoy Yuri Trutnev. The envoy “is known for his difficult relationship with the Khabarovsk Territory’s recently dismissed governor, Sergey Furgal. Putin’s envoy arrived in Khabarovsk unannounced on July 13, in an apparent effort to calm the sustained mass protests that ensued following Furgal’s arrest on July 9.”

Could Russia act as mediator between Armenia and Azerbaijan as the two country’s risk conflict? Many in Armenia have viewed Russia’s muted response a failure to meet its CSTO treaty obligations, and have asked why its response in this instance is less tough than in South Ossetia, Crimea, Transnistria, and other territorial disputes where Moscow’s preferences are clear. They note,

The Kremlin’s reaction reflects several fundamental aspects of Russian policy in the region. Firstly, Moscow does not have a universal approach to regulating all the conflicts in the Caucasus, let alone across the former Soviet Union. The model used in the breakaway Georgian regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia was not used in Transnistria, just as what happened in Crimea was not repeated in the Donbas. Moscow doesn’t follow any preset standards or ideological tenets; it simply reacts to the dynamic of the conflict on the ground.

Secondly, for Russia, even in multilateral structures, bilateral relations are particularly valued. One key difference between Azerbaijan and Georgia, where Russia responded harshly to the escalation of August 2008, is that Baku does not accompany its actions to restore its territorial integrity with anti-Russian rhetoric.

Mail.ru has capitalized on gamers stuck at home during the pandemic. Vedomosti wrote [in Russian], “The consolidated revenue of Mail.ru Group in the second quarter of 2020 increased by 25.5% to 25.37 billion rubles, follows from the unaudited report of the Internet company under IFRS. This is higher than in the same period in 2019, when the holding’s revenues increased by 22.9%.” In particular, revenue from the company’s gaming business soared 1.5 times.

BBC wrote, “The US and UK have accused Russia of testing a weapon-like projectile in space that could be used to target satellites in orbit. The US State Department described the recent use of “what would appear to be actual in-orbit anti-satellite weaponry” as concerning. Russia’s defence ministry earlier said it was using new technology to perform checks on Russian space equipment.

PHOTO: US President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin had a phone conversation yesterday (Getty).