RA’s Daily Russia News Blast – June 17, 2021

Today in Russia: “Overcoming mistrust” the name of the game at Biden-Putin meeting; US and Russian ambassadors will return to their posts; Sputnik V’s EU approval delayed; You can have Navalny back when you admit he’s a spy! Mandatory vaccination coming to some corners of Russia (nevermind what Peskov said); Prigozhin’s next target: Mediazona and its editor, prospective foreign agent; All overseas bank transfers to be verified

Mistrust overcome? The much-anticipated Biden-Putin meeting has come to a close. US President Joe Biden said the meeting had a “positive tone,” and claimed his agenda is “not against Russia” but emphasized that the US will continue to speak out about human rights, adding that he raised the issue of Alexei Navalny with the Russian President. “The bottom line is I told President Putin that we need to have some basic rules of the road that we can all abide by.” Biden also said he outlined 16 areas of US critical infrastructure which “should be off limits” to cyber-attacks. In a big win for Putin, Biden broke with his former boss Barack Obama’s dismissive description of Russia as a “regional power” – Biden referred to Moscow and Washington as “two great powers.”

Vladimir Putin was keen to highlight Russia’s “red lines” and demand respect, but called the talks with Biden “absolutely constructive.” Regarding cyber warfare, the Russian leader denied that Russia was behind recent attacks in the US. In Putin’s press conference, which was held separate from Biden’s – reportedly a demand from the Biden Administration in order to avoid the embarrassment that befell Donald Trump at the infamous Helsinki meeting of the two leaders – the Russian President highlighted key talking points from the meeting, which Meduza kindly summarized (not direct quotes, but a summary):

The conversation was constructive, there wasn’t any hostility. We agreed that the ambassadors will return to Moscow and Washington. We agreed to begin consultations on cybersecurity — but, incidentally, there are more cyberattacks from the United States than from Russia. We discussed Ukraine; Biden understood that the Minsk Agreements should be at the heart of the settlement. We conduct drills on our own territory — unlike the United States, we don’t drag military equipment to their borders. We touched upon the topic of Navalny — this man ignored the law and consciously returned to Russia in order to be detained. The Anti-Corruption Foundation incited mass riots and publicly gave instructions on how to make Molotov cocktails, so they are extremists. In the United States, the people who went into the Congress were declared terrorists. Yes, Biden called me a “killer,” well so what? In the United States people are killed every day, what about Guantanamo? I don’t need to look into Biden’s eyes and soul, we have a pragmatic dialogue.

Back to their posts. One positive development from the meeting is the return of Russia and America’s ambassadors back to their respective posts. Anatoly Antonov and John Sullivan have both been in their home capitals, the former since March after Biden’s “killer” remarks, and the latter since April, when he went to Washington to seek “consultations” with Washington, right after the US imposed new sanctions and expelled Russian diplomats leading to retaliation from Moscow.

Delay tactics. The European Union further delayed the approval of Russia’s Sputnik V COVID-19 vaccine for use in the bloc. Sputnik V has been subject to somewhat dismissive and derogatory comments from top EU political and health officials, and now it will likely not be approved until the end of the year, if at all according to Reuters. Increased access to Western vaccines across the EU is likely to blame for the decreased urgency.

Take your US citizen CIA asset back if you wish. Kremlin Spokesman Dmitry Peskov told Echo Moskviy radio that Russia would consider handing over jailed opposition figure Alexei Navalny to the US if Washington happened to “suddenly confirm officially that he is a citizen of the United States and works for the special services. There is no other way.” It seems that Navalny’s November lawsuit against Peskov for his previous insinuations and accusations of being a CIA asset have not paid off. Indeed, his lawsuit was rejected for errors, and last month his second attempt at suing the Kremlin spokesman was accepted by the court – but don’t hold your breath. In the meeting between Biden and Putin, Navalny’s extradition or exchange to the US was not discussed, but the US president did warn Putin about “consequences” should Navalny die in custody.

So we said no mandatory vaxx, but we were just kidding. Earlier this week, Dmitry Peskov insisted that new incentives were needed to boost Russia’s extremely low vaccination rates, but was at pains to emphasize that the government would not force people to get the vaccine. Well, it seems if regional or city governments do the forcing, Peskov doesn’t see a problem. Four regions have implemented legislation requiring vaccination of at least parts of their population: First Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin signed a decree requiring that those working in key service sector jobs – including trade, catering, transport, health care, culture, and other areas involving frequent contact with customers – will be required to receive their first dose by July 15 and the second by August 15 in an effort to reach 60 percent vaccinated across the city. Now the Moscow Region, Kuzbass, and the far eastern Sakhalin have followed suit with mandatory measures, and the Amur region is considering the same. Russia Today (RT) has also announced that it will pay about $800 to every employee that gets vaccinated before July 10.

Dmitry Peskov, despite his comments earlier this week, said regional mandates requiring vaccinations are “absolutely necessary and justified”, adding that “This is my personal point of view.” Peskov curiously claimed that “The principle of non-mandatory vaccination is preserved in general,” but emphasized that vaccination rates in the face of what many believe is a new “Moscow variant” and exploding case numbers were far too low and measures had to be taken.

Prigozhin goes for blood. Dmitry Prigozhin, the US-sanctioned, Kremlin-connected Russian businessman affectionately known as “Putin’s chef” has successfully gone after Alexei Navalny and his “extremist” Anti-Corruption Organization (FBK) after finding himself a victim of hard-hitting and embarrassing FBK investigations. Now, Putin’s Chef is setting his sights on the editor of opposition-friendly news outlet Mediazona and his publication, both of which he wants declared a foreign agent, according to a copy of a letter released by Novaya Gazeta shared by Prigozhin’s Foundation for National Values Protection.

If Mediazona is declared a foreign agent, there will be previous few independent outlets left that have not suffered the same fate – earlier this month the business and economics-focused VTimes, a new project launched by ex-staffers of the formerly independent business outlet Vedomosti, was forced to close shop after its declaration as a foreign agent “destroyed” their business model and left no viable way to continue. Meduza, another independent outlet, was declared a foreign agent in April.

Undesirable foreign money for undesirable organizations. In seemingly relentless efforts to combat “undesirable organizations” and thwart any effort to receive foreign funds, as part of a new package adopted by the Duma this month any transfer of money between a foreign sender and a Russian recipient must be flagged by the receiving Russian bank for review if the money originates from a country on a mysterious and secret list that is to be compiled by financial watchdog Rosfinmonitoring. If an “intermediary” is used (someone in Russia receives money from abroad and then sends to an undesirable organization), this intermediary can also be declared undesirable and may be subject to criminal charges for repeat offenses.

While the bill only targets money flowing to undesirable organizations, concerns have been raised about how such monitoring of financial flows will be carried out on such a large scale. Just a few days ago, central bank governor Elvira Nabiullina warned about the erosion of bank secrecy and the potential loss of depositors if this goes too far.

PHOTO: Russian President Vladimir Putin met with US counterpart Joe Biden yesterday (Kremlin Press Office).