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RA’s Daily Russia News Blast – May 18, 2020

Today in Russia: New COVID-19 cases under 10k per day for three days in a row; Siberian death reports not being updated; Vedomosti owner responds to investigation; Former Yukos shareholders seize vodka brand; How the US “intends to slow down” China and Russia; US to donate 200 ventilators to Russia; After Rostec ventilators outlawed, deepening shortage feared; Russia-Norway border closed until at least Aug 20, maybe end of year; NATO “facing up to Russia” in Arctic circle; Russian Navy to “bolster” Baltic fleet; China’s mask diplomacy challenges Russia in Belarus; Russian oil above $30 for first time since March; Fear over virus in Dagestan

For three straight days, Russia added fewer than 10,000 new COVID-19 cases and added 8,926 new cases on Monday, the first time this number was below 9,000 since May 1. The total number of cases is 290,678 [in Russian]. According to state news agency TASS, Russia has conducted over 7 million COVID-19 tests.

Moscow Times wrote that Siberian death counts are not being updated. They note,

Russia’s national coronavirus crisis center has stopped updating the latest Covid-19 death counts in at least two Siberian regions while the regions have published new numbers, the Tayga.info news website reported [in Russian] Monday.

The disparity comes amid questions over Russia’s low coronavirus death toll compared to other countries with high Covid-19 case numbers. Russia only counts the deaths of coronavirus-positive patients toward its official total if pathologists determine that the virus played a direct role in their death, leading critics to say the true toll could be much higher.

Vedomosti’s current de facto owner Demyan Kudryavtsev responded in an interview [in Russian] to the report by a group of outlets about Rosneft’s hidden hand behind Vedomosti. He made many claims in his interview in response to the bombshell report. Meduza translated his interview into English and responded to his claims.

Former shareholders of Yukos, formerly Russia’s largest private oil company before it was appropriated by the Russian state have seized the local operations in the Netherlands, Belgium, and Luxembourg of the Stolichnaya and Moskovskaya vodka brands.

Kommersant headlined with an article [in Russian] titled “‘Make rivals run slower’: The State Department tells how the United States intends to slow down the development of Russia and China.” The article referred to a report released by the US State Department last week titled, “Competitive Strategy vis-à-vis China and Russia: A View from the ‘T Suite‘.”

The US will donate 200 ventilators to Russia using US military transport aircraft next week. The first 50 will be ready on Wednesday and are bound for a surgical center in Moscow. The next 150 will be ready for shipment on May 26.

After ventilators manufactured by state-owned and US-sanctioned Rostec were outlawed after deadly fires in Moscow and St Petersburg, the shortage of ventilators may grow more acute, Vedomosti wrote [in Russian].

The land crossing between Russia and Norway will be closed until at least August 20, but may not open for normal traffic until 2021 if Norway uses a special law that would prolong the closure of its non-Nordic borders. Russia is Norway’s only non-Schengen land border.

NATO is “facing up” to Russia in the Arctic Circle, The Economist wrote. On May 1, US and British naval vessels conducted drills in the Norwegian Sea, which was not unusual. They further note,

But on May 4th some of those ships broke off and sailed farther north into the Barents Sea, along with a third destroyer, remaining there until VE Day on May 8th. Russia’s navy, whose powerful Northern Fleet is based at Severomorsk around the corner, was told in advance, but still greeted its visitors with live torpedo exercises

The decision to dispatch destroyers was a bold one. One aim was to show that covid-19 has not blunted swords, despite the virus knocking out an American and a French carrier. Another was to assert freedom of navigation in the face of Russia’s imposition of rules on the Northern Sea Route (NSR), a passage between the Barents Sea and the Pacific Ocean that is increasingly navigable as ice melts. Although last week’s exercise did not enter the NSR, it hints at a willingness to do so in the future.

The Russian Navy, meanwhile, will bolster its Baltic fleet by adding six Karakurt-class corvettes, high-tech vessels equipped with Kalibr cruise missiles. Four of the vessels will also be equipped with Pantsir-M anti-aircraft systems.

China’s mask diplomacy in Russia’s neighbor Belarus “brings Minsk closer” to China. Nikkei Asian Review wrote, “China’s coronavirus aid has earned mixed reviews in Europe at best, but it appears to be working as advertised in Belarus — apparently at Russia’s expense…Over the past month, China has sent three cargo planes to the small Eastern European nation, carrying over 82 tons of rapid testing kits, masks, protective suits, respirators and other medical equipment. Another shipment is due to arrive later this month.

Urals oil – the benchmark used to price Russian oil exports – rose above $30 per barrel for the first time since March. RBC wrote [in Russian], “Analysts attribute this to reduced production by major market players and weakened quarantine measures in consumer countries.”

Dagestan and its COVID-19 situation is on President Vladimir Putin’s mind. He said today,The situation in the republic of Dagestan is complicated and of course calls for additional — and urgent measures.” The Republic has reported 3,460 cases and just 29 deaths, but RBC wrote [in Russian] that “The President instructed the Ministry of Emergency Situations to begin large-scale sanitizing of public places, and the Ministry of Defense to quickly deploy the construction of a multi-functional medical center.

PHOTO: Demyan Kudryavtsev, the de-facto owner of Russian business daily Vedomosti. The paper is officially owned by his wife as Kudryavtsev is an Israeli citizen and thus barred from Russian media ownership. A row has erupted over allegations of Rosneft owning large amounts of debt connected to the paper and over recent editorial decisions made by the paper’s new editor. (Ekaterina Kuzmina / RBC / TASS)