RA’s Daily Russia News Blast – July 30, 2020

Today in Russia: Belarus-Russia relations in freefall as Wagner Group mercenaries found in Minsk; Belarus pre-election crackdown; Germany asks for Russia’s help to track down fugitive Wirecard exec; Russia and China catching up with US on hypersonic missiles; Putin’s ratings plummet as Khabarovsk protest enjoy widespread support across Russia; Ruble falls against the Euro to 86.23

Belarus and Russia have long been close allies. That looks to be changing rapidly as Belarus announced it arrested 33 Russian mercenaries from the Kremlin-connected Wagner group in the run-up to a heated presidential election next month. The New York Times wrote, “Escalating a simmering feud with Russia, its neighbor and longtime ally, Belarus on Wednesday charged that more than 200 mercenaries from Russia, disguised as tourists, had infiltrated Belarus on a mission to disrupt its presidential election.” The Moscow Times wrote that “The shock announcement is just the latest twist in an extraordinary election campaign that has seen President Alexander Lukashenko, who has dominated Belarus for nearly three decades, jail his key would-be rivals ahead of the vote.

Belarus arrested Vitali Shkliarov, a Harvard University fellow who has worked on numerous political campaigns in the US, Russia, and Ukraine. The Moscow Times wrote that Shkliarov “has worked on both Barack Obama’s and Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaigns. He told Russian opposition television channel Dozhd that he had arrived in Belarus in early July. Citing the country’s security service, Belarussian television said Shkliarov had advised Sergei Tikhanovsky, one of strongman leader Alexander Lukashenko’s would-be rivals, who is now in jail.”

Germany asked Russia to help track down fugitive Wirecard executive Jan Marsalek. The Wall Street Journal wrote, The request, made on July 22, and a “red notice” issued through multilateral police organization Interpol were disclosed in written answers the German government provided to lawmakers on Wednesday and reviewed by The Wall Street Journal. The lawmakers are probing the fallout of Wirecard, which filed for insolvency last month after auditors found a $2 billion hole on its balance sheet.” Russia has not yet responded to the request. Reports have indicated that Marsalek is in Russia under the protection of Russian intelligence.

“Russian President Vladimir Putin boasted Sunday of nearing deployment of nuclear-tipped hypersonic missiles with his Navy, upping the ante in a three-way arms race with the U.S. and China to develop super-fast missiles that can penetrate any existing defensive system.” A US analyst told Military Times that the US had the lead, but “Then, we kind of took our foot off the gas. We didn’t listen to our own advice. Now, we’re in a situation where we’re truly in a three-way race.”

Russians’ trust in President Vladimir Putin fell to a new low in July as tens of thousands of protesters took to the streets in anti-Kremlin protests in the Far East, according to newly published results from the independent Levada Center pollster. Only 23% of respondents named Putin when asked to identify which politicians they trust the most, the Levada Center said [in Russian] Wednesday.” The same poll found that nearly half of Russians surveyed support the Khabarovsk protests in defense of arrested former governor Sergei Furgal.

Ksenia Sobchak, a TV presenter and the daughter of Putin’s former boss in St Petersburg Anatoly Sobchak, will likely be able to purchase a stake in a Sakhalin crab company. The company’s assets were frozen shortly before she planned to take a 40 percent stake, but this was overturned by a court following lobbying by her mother, a Senator. “A regional court in Sakhalin has overturned a lower court’s decision to freeze the assets of the crab companies “Kurilskiy Universal Komplex” (KUK) and “Moneron,” reports the newspaper Vedomosti [in Russian]. Both businesses have been linked to Oleg Kan, who’s wanted by the police,” Meduza reported.

In Sevastopol, a serviceman of the Russian Black Sea Fleet has been detained on suspicion of high treason, according to a press release from the FSB Public Relations Center received by RBC. The detainee passed secret information to the Ukrainian military intelligence, according to the FSB,” RBC reported [in Russian].

The Ruble is now trading at 86.23 to 1 against the Euro. “The Russian ruble has been depreciating against major currencies for several days in a row. The exchange rate of the euro crossed the mark of 84 rubles on July 27, and on July 28 the single European currency began to cost more than 85 rubles [in Russian].” This could be due to the demand for foreign exchange liquidity from non-residents for repatriating dividend payments from Russian companies, according to some analysts.

PHOTO: Alexander Lukashenko faces a contentious election next month. A serious rift with neighboring Russia is also brewing as Belarus’ strongman says Wagner Group mercenaries were arrested in Minsk. (Nikolai Petrov / BELTA / TASS).