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RA’s Daily Russia News Blast – November 19, 2020

Today in Russia: Russia’s big new role in the Caucasus: Risks, early signs of trouble, and Putin’s big Q+A; Russia to build Sudan naval base; Another governor arrested; Putin’s immunity for life

Russia’s new peacekeeping role in Nagorno-Karabakh may present serious challenges. While “Russian soldiers are no strangers to patrolling the lines of frozen conflicts in the country’s neighbourhood,they are not accustomed to being unbiased preservers of peace. In Eastern Ukraine, South Ossetia and Abkhazia, and in Transnistria, by contrast, Russian troops are placed to defend territory held by pro-Russian separatists. Furthermore, “Russian peacekeeping will now be a huge item on the bilateral agenda with both Armenia and Azerbaijan. Renewing or not renewing the mandate for it to continue will become a source of bargaining and leverage affecting much wider issuesManaging that influence in ways that avoid looking like a former imperial power will be challenging, however,” one analyst told the Financial Times.

Already, there have been signs of trouble in Yerevan, where protests against Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan and the Russian-brokered agreement continue to rage and led to the resignation (or, according to Pashinyan, his firing) of the country’s Foreign Minister Zohrab Mnatsakanyan over disagreements with the Prime Minister over the peace agreement. It foreshadows continuing political unrest in Yerevan and the possibility of forces looking to tear up the peace agreement coming to power. On Wednesday Vladimir Putin warned Armenia that pulling out of the week-old peace agreement would be “suicidal” for Yerevan. Putin elaborated, “A country that is at war or in danger of resuming hostilities, as it has always been in past years, still cannot afford to behave in such a way, including in the sphere of organising power, as to split society from within. I think this is absolutely unacceptable, counterproductive and extremely dangerous.”

The Kremlin released an extensive Q+A with President Vladimir Putin on Tuesday regarding the brokering of the Nagorno-Karabakh agreement between Armenia and Azerbaijan. Caucasus expert Thomas de Waal wrote that the most interesting takeaway was that the Russian leader was “much more strongly involved than was visible during the conflict,” in particular his personal engagement in minute details, including “intense telephone diplomacy with his Armenian and Azerbaijani counterparts.” This demonstrated that, “Like it or not, the Russians (he, [Foreign Minister Sergei] Lavrov, [Former President and PM Dmitry] Medvedev) know the Karabakh brief in all its details. No Western leader would even come close.”

Russia is set to build its first naval base in Africa, on Sudan’s Red Sea coast. The Financial Times reported that the Russian navy hass been “directed to proceed with plans to construct a base for 300 personnel and space for up to four warships including nuclear-powered vessels, according to an order [in Russian] signed by president Vladimir Putin signed Monday.” Al-Monitor wrote that the base does not include provisions for an air force component or a runway. “Therefore this military facility can hardly serve as a projection of power and support for Russian military missions and PMCs in sub-Saharan Africa. Thus, it will be used, first of all, in the interests of the naval forces of the Russian Federation proper, and logistical support for the Russian military and PMCs in Africa will continue to be carried out through the Syrian Khmeimim air base.”

The Sudan naval base announcement comes just weeks after the US President Donald Trump removed Sudan from the US list of state sponsors of terrorism. US officials had previously “dismissed” reports of the Russian naval base as false, and the Sudanese authorities have not yet commented on the naval base announcement.

Mikhail Men, a former governor of the Ivanovo region just north of Moscow was arrested. Men’s fate comes close on the heels of the Mayor [in Russian] of the Siberian city of Tomsk, and adds to a growing list of current and ex-regional governors and mayors falling due to alleged corruption or other criminal charges. Men was charged with embezzling 700 million rubles ($9.2 million) from the Ivanovo region, where he was governor from 2005 to 2013. Men is a former music producer and the son of a famous priest, Alexander Men. The former governor had a strong relationship with Deputy National Security Council chief (and former PM and President) Dmitry Medvedev, who infamously was exposed by Alexei Navalny’s foundation to have owned a lavish mansion in Plyos, a town in the Ivanovo region along the Volga River. Boris Nadezhyn told Meduza that the case is likely political, noting that “You can find something on any official in any regional administration to launch a case. It’s some kind of elite infighting. It’s not a war on corruption.”

Since the constitutional referendum passed over the summer, Vladimir Putin can remain president until 2036 if he so chooses. And now he will soon gain another benefit: a lifetime free from prosecution. On November 17, the State Duma approved a draft law extending immunity for former Russian presidents from any criminal or administrative violations after leaving office in its first reading. The bill is a response to the constitutional amendments passed over the summer which call for such legislation. Meduza noted that “While the draft law has only been approved in its first reading, all of these provisions have already been written into the current version of Russia’s constitution.”

Deputies from the Communist Party were “adamantly opposed” to the presidential immunity bill, however, prompting the Duma’s chairman Vyacheslav Volodin to accuse the Communists of “trampling” on Russia’s institutions. Some from the Liberal Democratic Party (LDPR) also spoke out about the bill. Volodin explained his fury at those opposing the legislation by declaring that “The man who destroyed it [the USSR] [Mikhail Gorbachev, presumably] is being condemned inside the country, but outside of the country? Everyone applauds. Therefore, if the country is to be stronger, it’s absolutely obvious that tomorrow, when the president ceases to hold power, he must be protected — by the people, by guarantees.

PHOTO: Russia announced this week that it will build a naval base in Sudan on the Red Sea coast. Pictured is an officer aboard a Russian naval vessel in the Syrian port of Tartus (Maxime Popov/AFP/Getty).