RA’s Daily Russia News Blast – May 15, 2020

Today in Russia: Another day of over 10,000 new cases; Lavrov latest to blast allegations of miscounting COVID-19 deaths, communications watchdog wants FT report blocked; Lavrov says no proof Russian hackers behind Bundestag hack; Rosneft posts 156 billion ruble loss but Sechin gets big help from Putin; Challenges cutting oil output; Cyrpus a “petri dish of Western worries”; Doctors dying on the front lines; Russian Premier League to resume matches on June 21; Moscow government bought the largest mask manufacturer; Siberian ambulance crews vow hunger strike over unpaid virus bonuses; Vedomosti power struggle shows “Kremlin’s widening influence”; How Russians are extradited from London

Russia added 10,598 new cases, bringing the total to 262,843 with 2,418 reported deaths.

Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov launched a barrage of criticism against reports that Russia has understated COVID-19 related deaths. He said, “As for the coronavirus statistics, I can assure you that the Russian authorities would be the last to try to hide the truth,” he pointed out. “This is no joke, it is about human lives and I think that it is outrageous to play with them. Just like it is outrageous to try to take advantage of the situation in order to tarnish a country’s image.” 

Meanwhile, Russia’s communications watchdog Roskomnadzor has demanded that Google block a Financial Times report that the death count could be 70 percent higher than reported. It has also launched a “probe” into both the FT and the New York Times, which also wrote about a discrepancy in the death count. Roskomnadzor also demanded that Google remove an article from MBkH [in Russian] which rehashed the findings of the FT report.

Foreign Minister Lavrov said that there is no evidence connecting Russian hackers to a 2015 hack of the German Bundestag. Chancellor Angela Merkel has said the evidence is indisputable that Russian hackers are responsible. Lavrov said, “Five years have passed. Not a single concrete fact has been provided.”

Rosneft posted a 156 billion ruble ($2.1 billion) loss, the first quarterly loss since 2012. The loss was steeper than analysis expected. Rosneft – which was highly opposed to OPEC+ production cuts, will be responsible for 40 percent of Russia’s committed cuts. Rosneft CEO Igor Sechin said of the results [in Russian], “As a result of the global COVID-19 virus pandemic, oil demand has experienced an unprecedented decline, which has led to a significant drop in energy prices.”

Igor Sechin, however, has a powerful backer in President Vladmir Putin. The Barents Observer wrote that despite the struggles of the industry, “Igor Sechin still gets the President’s unequivocal support for the development Vostok Oil, the project that is due to bring several hundred million tons of north Siberian oil to international markets via the Northern Sea Route.” Putin took a face to face meeting with Sechin on Tuesday despite being in self-isolation for the past two months at which Putin asked, “What can we do to support you and preserve your investments?…What do you consider to be the most relevant kind of support from the state?”

Bloomberg wrote that Russian oil producers are facing technical challenges to oil production cuts, writing that “sealing off” wells in arctic conditions can lead to long term damage to production.They wrote, “To save the market from collapse caused by the coronavirus, Moscow and its OPEC allies agreed to cut crude output deeper than ever before. Their deal pulled prices back from the brink, but the speed and duration of the shutdown increases the risk of losing some oil wells forever.” However, earlier this month the New York Times wrote that “Oil analysts have called the cold weather claim one of the global oil industry’s biggest geopolitical bluffs, one which Russian officials carried off with a straight face for decades to deflect OPEC demands for help with prices.

The Financial Times wrote that Cyprus, both an EU member and a popular destination for Russians, “has become a Petri dish of western worries.” They wrote, “The post-Soviet influx of money and people into this Mediterranean island of barely one million inhabitants has, at times, turned it into a Petri dish of western worries about Russia’s activities in Europe, both real and imagined. Economic and political connections between the two countries have highlighted deepening tensions within the EU over how to deal with President Vladimir Putin’s Kremlin.

Doctors are dying on the front lines of Russia’s coronavirus struggle and suffer from a lack of personal protective equipment. The New York Times wrote, “Facing dire shortages of protective gear and amid fears that the worst is yet to come, more than 180 medical workers are reported to have fallen victim so far and thousands have been infected.

The Russian Premier league is to resume matches on June 21. Reuters wrote, “The decision comes after several other European professional leagues, including Germany’s Bundesliga, announced their return to the pitch.

The Government of Moscow bought the country’s largest mask producer, KIT, in March, Vedomosti reported [in Russian]. KIT produces over one third of the country’s masks. Russia still suffers from a huge lack of personal protective equipment, especially for doctors, nurses, and other front-line workers.

Ambulance workers in Russia’s Kemerovo region in Western Siberia threatened a hunger strike over unpaid bonuses promised to all health care workers by President Putin.

The Wall Street Journal wrote, “A power struggle at the top of Russia’s leading business newspaper threatens to stifle one of the country’s last remaining independent voices as censorship and the Kremlin’s own influence steadily widens.A joint investigation by Vedomosti itself, Meduza, The Bell, and Forbes Russia found that Rosneft in fact has a controlling influence over Vedomosti through debt, which goes some way to explain the struggle that has ensued at the respected business outlet.

Vedmosti wrote about “How Russians are extradited from London.” They write,

For many years, Russian businessmen pursued by the investigation have fled to London and stay there. Often forever. “There is no extradition from London!” – favorite mantra of Russian refugees. But is it really so? 

Earlier, the threat of extradition from the UK was seen as a possible movement only “towards” the Russian Federation, but now, after the arrest of Oleg Tinkov at the request of the United States, it is clear that this is a much more global process – with its risks that have not been previously assessed. And the fact of the intervention of the American “Themis” in the circumstances of the payment by Russian oligarchs of taxes on their wealth cannot but alert those who have long since lost everything and are serving their sentences.

PHOTO: Ambulance workers in Western Siberia have threatened a hunger strike over unpaid bonuses promised by President Putin due to the coronavirus pandemic. (Sergei Fadeichev / TASS)