RA’s Daily Russia News Blast – July 29, 2020

Today in Russia: Deripaska says Russia’s fight against US sanctions lackluster; US again accuses Russia of COVID-19 disinformation; Kremlin insists Safronov case not related to journalism – despite demanding he reveal sources; The Kremlin explains the resignation of 11 health minister in the regions; “Alcolocks” may be coming to Russian vehicles; Rosneft and Norilsk Nickel find compromise over gas field and energy supply; Sberbank to acquire Rambler; Belarus says it found foreign mercenaries in Minsk

Oleg Deripaska, the sanctioned Russian oligarch, says that Russia’s effort in fighting US sanctions and preparing countermeasures is insufficient. He claimed that “5,000 people” are working in the US on preparing sanctions, while Russia only has only four people preparing countermeasures, RBC wrote [in Russian]. “Since 2014-2018, we have been absolutely indifferent to this. We do not need 5 thousand people, but a thousand and created subdivisions in all departments should work. Payment settlements providing export-import must be implemented. I’m not even talking about digital assets and everything related to new digital technologies,” he said.

The US accused Russia of COVID-19 disinformation, the Associated Press reported. “Two Russians who have held senior roles in Moscow’s military intelligence service known as the GRU have been identified as responsible for a disinformation effort meant to reach American and Western audiences, U.S. government officials said. They spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly.”

The South China Morning Post reported that China has proposed “teaming up” with Russia in the COVID-19 information war against the United States.

The Kremlin insists that its espionage case against Ivan Safronov is not related to journalism. Kommersant wrote [in Russian],

The case of treason against the former Kommersant journalist, advisor to the head of Roscosmos Ivan Safronov, is not connected with his journalistic activities, said the presidential press secretary Dmitry Peskov. Mr. Safronov himself believes that the criminal prosecution is connected with his materials. Earlier, the journalist’s lawyer Ivan Pavlov said [in Russian] that the investigation suggested that Mr. Safronov disclose the sources of information and admit his guilt. In exchange for this, his case would be considered in a special order, and the sentence would be less. Mr. Safronov refused.

Safronov has refused to disclose his sources in exchange for a more lenient sentence. The Moscow Times wrote, “Investigators “casually” told Safronov that a plea bargain in which he shares his sources would be his “best way out,” his lawyer Ivan Pavlov told Interfax. Safronov “did not even discuss it,” Interfax cited Pavlov as saying.

Kremlin Spokesman Dmitry Peskov explained why 11 health ministers across Russia’s regions have resigned or been dismissed. Peskov chalked it up to “rotation” of personnel. RBC wrote [in Russian], “Peskov answered the question whether the situation when the heads of 11 regional ministries of health left their posts since the beginning of the pandemic indicates problems with the selection of personnel. Earlier, the publication Ura.ru wrote about the next resignation . It reported that the governor of the Sverdlovsk region, Yevgeny Kuyvashev, decided to remove the head of the regional health ministry, Andrei Tsvetkov, but the decree has not yet been signed.”

Kommersant reported that [in Russian] “The Ministry of Industry and Trade, Kommersant found out, plans to develop a “concept for the introduction into mass consumption” of alcolocks (they block the ignition when alcohol is exhaled) by the end of the year and “stimulate” automakers to install devices in cars coming off the assembly line. Previously, the installation of devices was supported by the traffic police, in addition, from 2022, all vehicles manufactured in the European Union must be equipped with such locks. Experts point out that the initiative will inevitably lead to an increase in the cost of cars, since the prices for alcolocks range from 25 to 120 thousand rubles. In addition, opponents warn, the probability of an erroneous triggering of the blocking system is high.”

“Rosneft and Norilsk Nickel have reached an agreement [in Russian] on a partnership in the field of fuel supply, the two companies said in a statement. They sent a joint letter to the Ministry of Natural Resources, in which Norilsk Nickel ‘expressed support” for the licensing of the Turkovsky block (including the Ushakovskoye field) in the Krasnoyarsk Territory on the terms proposed by Rosneft.'”

In addition, Rosneft will supply 123,900 tons of petroleum products to Norilsk Nickel operations between October and April, Reuters reported. The deal comes after Norilsk Nickel’s subsidiary suffered an environmentally catastrophic fuel spill in May.

Sberbank will acquire a controlling stake in technology firm Rambler, investing 2 billion rubles in the firm. Vedomosti wrote [in Russian], “As part of the provision of additional financing, Sberbank will buy from Rambler Group a treasury stake in the amount of 6.95%, which was previously acquired by the group from financial investor Era Capital.” The deal comes shortly after Sberbank sold its stake in Yandex.Market, a joint project between the bank and the tech firm.

Belarus said it found [in Russian] 32 “foreign fighters” from a private security firm in Minsk, as the country gears up for elections and its strongman President Alexander Lukashenko takes aim at Russia and Poland for alleged “foreign intereference.” RBC wrote, “Lukashenko also argued that some ‘puppeteers’ were behind the attempts to ‘lead the country to a certain Maidan [referring to Ukraine],’ and the chairman of the State Control Committee (KGC) Ivan Tertel said that these ‘puppeteers’ are in Gazprom. ‘Such persons, we know, are big bosses in Gazprom, and maybe even higher,’ Tertel said.

The Russian energy giant’s bank in Belarus, Belgazprombank, has found itself in political difficulties as its former CEO seeks the presidency. The bank’s board of directors was reappointed by the Belarusian central bank and faces investigations.

PHOTO: Belorussian internal security forces. Minsk says it found foreign mercenaries in the capital as it continues claims of foreign interference in the run up to unusually competitive elections on August 9 (Natalia Fedosenko / TASS).