RA’s Daily Russia News Blast – May 22, 2020

Today in Russia: 8,894 new cases; Significant increase” in deaths in May expected; Putin fears second wave of COVID-19; US coronavirus aid totals $5.6 million from banned USAID; Lab says 14% of Russians have antibodies; “Trump is right” to ditch Open Skies; Medvedev blasts US for Open Skies pull-out; Putin “presses plan to extend rule”; 5 more years for Sechin; Russia “Grabs Mideast Peace Initiative”; “Liberalized” visa system coming 2021; COVID-19 voting changes could be “very bad”

Russia confirmed 8,894 new COVID-19 cases, bringing the total number of confirmed cases to 326,448 and reported a record 150 deaths.

Deputy Prime Minister Tatiana Golikova said the authorities are expecting a “significant increase in deaths in May. She said, “There will be a significant mortality increase in May” despite attempts to save the maximum number of patients. Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin concurred, stating “The number of deaths from the coronavirus will be higher in May than in April, because the virus peak was in the beginning of May.”

Russian President Vladimir Putin said the Health Ministry should begin preparations for a second wave of COVID-19 in the fall. “I would like to draw the attention of our colleagues, first and foremost, Health Minister Mikhail Murashko, to the need to be prepared that while easing the restrictions we have been living under we should think about a second wave, which, according to experts, may come in the fall, in October and November,” he said.

The US is donating a total of $5.6 million in aid to Russia, including 200 ventilators. The first 50 arrived this week and another shipment of 150 are expected to arrive next week. US Ambassador to Russia John Sullivan said, “The United States and Russia have provided assistance to each other in the past, and I have no doubt will do so in the future.” The aid is delivered by US military aircraft and provided by USAID. CBS wrote thatthe U.S. aid agency was forced to suspend operations in Russia in 2012, after two decades of work there, when the Russian government accused it and other U.S.-funded NGOs of meddling in domestic politics.

A private lab says that 1 of 7 healthy Russians may have been infected with the coronavirus and have antibodies. The Moscow Times wrote, “Out of more than 40,000 people tested between Monday and Thursday in most Russian regions, the Invitro lab said 14% had antibodies. Nearly half of Invitro’s tests were submitted in Moscow and the Moscow region, the epicenter of Russia’s coronavirus outbreak.” Invitro emphasized that the presence of antibodies does not necessarily equal immunity.

Eli Lake at Bloomberg argued that “Trump is right” to pull out of Open Skies. He wrote, “If one party isn’t abiding by an arms-control agreement, the other is justified in walking away.” He continued,

President Donald Trump is preparing to exit his second arms-control treaty with Russia since taking the oath of office, and the opposition is already in high dudgeon. “This is insane,” tweeted former CIA director Michael Hayden. “Another shortsighted Trump move to abandon a treaty that includes many close allies,” tweeted Samantha Power, former ambassador to the United Nations.

But Trump’s decision is the right one — both in the details and on principle.

The deal in question is the Open Skies treaty, signed in 1992, which allows U.S. and Russian spy planes to fly over military installations and weapons facilities. The aim is to give the 35 nations that are now members confidence that their adversaries are keeping their arms-control commitments.

Dmitry Medvedev, now the Security Council Deputy Chairman, criticized the US move to pull out of Open Skies. He wrote, “Basically, Washington has encroached on the goals set forth in the treaty and even reflected in its title, which is maintaining openness, transparency, and trust in the military sphere.”

Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said that Russia is committed to Open Skies, however, despite the US pull-out, adding, “Yes, we are committed to this treaty…Over the course of many years, we had laid out a set of claims to the US regarding its violations of the treaty on a whole number of aspects…The United States is a gross violator of the Open Skies Treaty…The claims, perhaps, with two exceptions, that were addressed to us yesterday are unfounded.”

President Putin is working to extend his tenure despite the coronavirus. Bloomberg wrote,

Thrown off course by the coronavirus pandemic, Vladimir Putin is moving to regain the political initiative for his plan to remain as Russia’s president potentially until 2036.

Putin may announce a snap ballot within weeks on proposed changes to the constitution that allow him to sidestep term limits, said four people familiar with Kremlin discussions on the matter. Electronic voting will be used as well as polling stations to boost turnout and the result, the people said.

Rosneft President Igor Sechin will stick around for another five years. The Board of Directors approved his re-appointment on Thursday.

Russia has seized the moment to “Grab the Middle East Peace Initiative” at the expense of the United States. Bloomberg wrote,

Russia is bidding to rescue the collapsing Israel-Palestinian peace process with a proposal for a meeting of major foreign and Middle Eastern powers.

Russia is in contact with the U.S., European Union and United Nations to organize a meeting soon of their Quartet of Middle East peace mediators, with the possible involvement of the Arab League and Arab states, the Foreign Ministry said on Thursday in a website statement. It’s also been in communication with Israel and the Palestinians.

The U.S. traditionally has been the main broker of peace negotiations, but the Palestinians cut off most ties with the Trump administration after it recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital in late 2017. The administration’s Middle East peace plan unveiled in January only cemented that rift, in part by endorsing Israel’s annexation of about 30% of the West Bank.

Russia’s growing clout in the region has benefited from a diminishing U.S. presence under President Donald Trump.

Moscow’s stated goal is to re-establish direct Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, and its talks offer comes at a difficult juncture. The formation of a permanent Israeli government this week has freed Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to act on his vow to annex some of the West Bank territory the Palestinians view as the heart of their hoped-for state.

Russia will unveil its “liberalized” visa system which will feature e-visas for citizens of over 50 countries. The Russian Foreign Ministry’s consular section wrote, “Starting in 2021, the most liberal regime for entry into Russia, which does not require visas in passports, will apply to nearly half the global population, about 4 billion people.” Canada, the UK, and the US are not be included on the list of countries eligible for e-visas. Russian officials have cited consular difficulties and geopolitical disputes as the reason for the exclusion of these countries.

Meduza wrote that electoral changes made in the wake of the coronavirus could be “very bad,” writing “In mid-May, Russia’s State Duma adopted four laws pertaining to elections. Two of them fall under a single title, ‘On amending certain legislative acts of the Russian Federation.’ The most important provisions, however, were ‘tacked on’ during the second reading. This has already become a kind of tradition: a bill about one thing is adopted in a first reading, but during the second reading it is transformed — sometimes beyond recognition. In this case, the formal reason for the changes is the coronavirus pandemic, which forced Russian lawmakers to expand opportunities for remote voting.

PHOTO: Electronic voting machines used last year. (Andrey Nikerichev / Moskva Agency)