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RA’s Daily Russia News Blast – May 14, 2020

Today in Russia: Putin “looks like an old, sick wolf” as COVID-19 rages; Russia “relies on fiddled statistics” in COVID-19 battle; Key MH-17 suspect detained by pro-Russian forces; Foreign Ministry warns about “anti-Chinese discouse” coming from Washington; SCO videoconference condemns US; Dutch Minister says Russia spreading disinformation; US should not embrace Russia in new cold war against China; NATO and Russia both flex their muscles despite coronavirus; Aeroflot bailout curtailed; Nearly a third of companies at risk of bankruptcy; Is Russia pulling support from Hifter in Libya?; Merkel caught between rock and hard place after “outrageous” hack; Truckers protest massive delays crossing Russia-China border; More than 300 Russians to return home from US; Coffee overtakes tea in Russia

President Vladimir Putin “looks like an old, sick wolf,” according to Alexander Kynev of the Higher School of Economics. The Moscow Times further writes that Putin has removed himself from an unprecedented crisis as the economy enters dangerous territory and officials close to him – such as the Prime Minister and his longtime spokesman – come down with the coronavirus. They write, “Other than striding into Moscow’s main coronavirus hospital at the end of March clad in a yellow hazmat suit and respirator, the president has abandoned his usual strong leader image for most of the outbreak. He has appeared on state television weekly in video conferences with cabinet and regional officials, but has appeared bored, slouching back in his chair and playing with a pen rather than paying attention.

After numerous reports questioning Russia’s unusually low mortality rate from the coronavirus, Meduza wrote that Russia’s methodology [in counting COVID-19 deaths] actually allows state officials to conceal coronavirus deaths deliberately, in order to paper over what is actually happening in regions outside major metropolises. Doctors and demographers told Meduza when morgues started overflowing, who’s calling the shots for pathologists, and how federal statistics on deaths and infections missed an entire city of nuclear physicists.

A key suspect in the downing of a passenger airliner over Eastern Ukraine in 2014 was detained on unrelated charges by pro-Russian forces around the same time the murder trial was started in the Netherlands this Spring. Former field commander Leonid Kharchenko, the only Ukrainian of the four suspects identified by a Dutch-led investigation was detained for what former soldier “call ‘ridiculous’ charges against Kharchenko in order to shield him from a kidnapping attempt by Ukraine.

Russia’s Foreign Ministry blasted [in Russian] the United States for its “anti-Chinese discourse.” Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov “accused the US of trying to impose anti-Chinese rhetoric on the world community and said that Moscow considers China’s actions adequate during the pandemic.” Ryabkov also attacked the West for accusing China and Russia of “disinformation” during the pandemic. Ryabkov said that this was simply a demonstration of prejudice against China and Russia.

The Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) held an extraordinary videoconference meeting led by Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. Lavrov accused the US of using the pandemic to impose its own world order, stating “We have to state that even in the conditions of a pandemic, our American colleagues and their allies do not abandon their attempts to escalate confrontation, to use the current situation to impose their point of view, their vision of world order, which they call an order based on rules. As you know, they invent the rules themselves.” Lavrov also said that calls to ease US sanctions against a host of countries to ease the suffering during the pandemic “are being ignored.” Kommersant described [in Russian] the SCO meeting as a “pandemic of accusations” against the US. Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi called on the world to “reject attempts to politicize the response, label the virus, and stigmatize any specific country, in order to shore up extensive public support to win the fight against COVID-19.”

Dutch Minister of Home Affairs Kasja Ollongren said that Russia is sowing discord and disinformation in her country. The NL Times wrote, “Russia is spreading disinformation about the coronavirus in the Netherlands, Minister Kasja Ollongren of Home Affairs said in a letter to parliament. Intelligence service AIVD found “Russian narratives” about the virus being shared in a number of Dutch-language social media groups, she said.

Georgetown University professor Matthew Kroenig wrote in Foreign Policy that the US should not “align with Russia” as tensions with China heat up. He argues, “As the coronavirus pandemic rages across the world, it has brought into sharper relief today’s foremost geopolitical rivalry. The United States and China are engaged in an increasingly intense competition for global political influence, economic and technological leadership, and military superiority. And while China now stands as the United States’ primary geopolitical rival, Russia also seeks to undermine U.S. interests and disrupt the U.S.-led system. The challenge these autocratic powers present could be even more severe if they work together.” He cautioned, however, that while “many national security strategists have argued that the United States should seek to peel them apart by working with Russia to counter the even bigger threat of China…the costs of cozying up to Russia far outweigh the benefits.

NATO and Russia both “flex their muscles” despite the coronavirus pandemic. The Wall Street Journal wrote, “On NATO’s eastern flank, the alliance and Russia are both looking for ways to flex their muscles and show they are ready for action while also boosting vigilance against a new, invisible foe—the coronavirus pandemic.

Russia has bailed out its airlines which have – as with the rest of the world – faced severely curtailed operations and collapses in revenue. However, limits have been placed on Aeroflot’s ability to obtain a bailout, with a provision “indicates a limit on the amount of compensation for groups of airlines united by signs of ‘significant influence and control.’ If at least one of the companies of such a group has a blocking stake [Блокирующий пакет акций] held by the government, and international transportation in the group as a whole in 2019 exceeded 20 million passengers, the group can receive no more than 33.7% of the total amount of subsidies allocated by the government.” In practice, Vedomosti notes [in Russian], the only airline that meets this very specific description is Aeroflot. The article further states, “The restriction for the Aeroflot group is incomprehensible and unfair, says an employee of one of the Russian airlines. On the other hand, Aeroflot is likely to receive targeted support from the state, so the restriction on the group’s share in the total industry subsidy is logical, said the Vedomosti source, who is close to another carrier.

Nearly a third of Russian companies are facing the threat of bankruptcy, according to a survey conducted from April 20-26, RBC reported [in Russian].

Al-Monitor asks if Russia is pulling its support for Libyan General Khalifa Hifter. They write, “While Russia doesn’t want to see Khalifa Hifter’s self-styled Libyan National Army collapse, there are signs Moscow’s interests may align more closely with other figures in the country’s eastern government.”

German Chancellor Angela Merkel finds herself in a difficult position after irrefutable evidence has come to light that Russia was responsible for a 2015 hack of the Bundestag. The New York Times wrote, “Patience with President Vladimir Putin is running thin in Berlin. But Germany needs Russia’s help on several geopolitical fronts from Syria to Ukraine.”

Russian trucks have faced enormous delays [in Russian] at the Chinese border in Eastern Russia’s Primorsky Krai. The move came after a Russian trucker tested positive for COVID-19 on May 12 in China. This has resulted in a “strike” [in Russian] and protests from Russian drivers. The Russian Consul General in Harbin appealed to the Chinese authorities to normalize the border crossing for truck traffic.

More than 300 Russians are to return home from the United States. Foreign Ministry Spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said, “The plane has already left for New York. We expect back home more than 300 compatriots, including our teenagers, who stayed in the United States under so-called exchange programs that sparked a row lately.” Zakharova blamed the US for providing insufficient assistance in tracking down Russian high school students studying in the US on various exchange programs. She claimed the Russian Embassy repeatedly requested assistance, to no avail.

Bloomberg reports that a Russian coffee and tea industry group said that coffee has overtaken tea consumption in the country. the RusTeaCoffee association said that coffee consumption rose 12% in Russia last year to 180,000 tons while demand for tea fell 8.5% to 139,000 tons in the same period. RusTeaCoffee head Ramaz Chanturiya told Bloomberg, “Since the Communist era, Russians have preferred tea, while coffee was considered an elite drink…Over the last decades, coffee has been growing and finally won, led by the younger generation’s consumption outside of the home.”

PHOTO: Members of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization are pictured in 2018. On Wednesday the SCO held an extraordinary meeting via videoconference in which Russia and China condemned Washington (Russian Presidential Press and Information Service)