|Author: Mamuka Komakhia, Analyst|
Review period: February 1-15, 2022
Russia claims regional hegemony in the post-Soviet space and considers that strengthening Western positions in the region poses a threat to its national interests. The purpose of our review is to provide readers with information about important events related to Russia’s policy in the post-Soviet space. The review is a biweekly publication and will be useful for everyone – decision-makers, public employees, media representatives and other people who are interested in the ongoing processes in post-Soviet countries.
Russian Lawmakers Support the Resolution on the Recognition of the Independence of Ukraine’s Breakaway Republics
Main Event: On February 15, 2022, the Russian State Duma supported an appeal to the President of Russia urging the recognition of the independence of the separatist regions of Ukraine – the self-proclaimed Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics.
Event in Details: The Speaker of the State Duma, Vyacheslav Volodin, added that Kyiv is not observing the Minsk agreements and Washington and European countries continue to arm Ukraine which, in his view, poses a threat to citizens of Russia and those living in the self-proclaimed Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics.
According to the EU, such a recognition would kill off the Minsk agreements. The Minsk agreements provide for special status for the breakaway regions, giving them more autonomy within Ukraine. Moscow is urging Kyiv to implement these agreements. The Ukrainian Foreign Minister, Dmitry Kullen, stated that “Russia will both de facto and de jure withdraw from the Minsk agreements with all the consequent results” if Vladimir Putin recognizes the separatist republics.
The urge for the recognition of the independence of the self-proclaimed Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics comes amid a buildup of Russian troops along the Ukrainian border. Although Moscow announced the withdrawal of some military units to their permanent dislocation, there is no evidence of it so far. Military exercises are underway in the border territories with Ukraine (Belarus, Black Sea). On February 15, Ukraine reported a cyber-attack on web-pages of its Armed Forces and several ministries and banks. The web-pages of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Culture were also targeted in which the main suspect is Russia.
Why the Event is Important: In light of futile negotiations between Russia and Western leaders when the West rejects Moscow’s main demand – NATO to end its “open door policy” and Russia has not yet resorted to direct military aggression against Ukraine, the recognition of the separatist republics is an instrument of pressure which Moscow uses against its opponents. The Kremlin hopes that by threatening to recognize the separatists, the West/Ukraine will make some concessions.
Monument to Alexander Suvorov Was Dismantled in Ukraine
Main Event: A monument to Alexander Suvorov was dismantled in the city of Poltava, Ukraine.
Event in Details: According to the Russian media, the monument to a famous Russian general in service of the Russian Empire of the XVIII century, Alexander Suvorov, was dismantled in Poltava on the initiative of Anton Drobovich, the Director of the Ukrainian Institute of National Memory. The Страна.ua internet newspaper published information and photos. The monument was stored as an exhibit in the Poltava Aviation Museum which is a branch of the National Military-Historical Museum. Earlier, it stood in the yard of the Kyiv Military Lyceum.
According to Mr. Drobovich, the monument was an element of Soviet propaganda and agitation which lost its significance after Ukraine gained independence.
Why the Event is Important: In recent years, Ukraine has been in the process of reviewing the significance of events related to the Russian Empire or the Soviet Union. As part of this process, the number of dismantled monuments/busts which were erected during the Soviet period has increased and led to harsh assessments from the Russian side. Moscow accuses Kyiv of inciting anti-Russian and nationalist sentiments.
Ukrainian “Spy” Sentenced to 12 Years in Prison in Russia
Main Event: According to the Russian Federal Security Service, a Ukrainian citizen, an agent of the Main Directorate of Intelligence of the Ministry of Defense of Ukraine, Konstantin Shiring, was sentenced to 12 years in prison for espionage.
Event in Details: Konstantin Shiring was detained on charges of espionage in Crimea in March 2020. According to the Russian Special Services, Mr. Shiring who was instructed by the Ukrainian Intelligence Service, recruited a Russian servicewoman to obtain information of interest for the Ukrainian Military Intelligence. As the Russian side reported, the woman admitted the cooperation with the Ukrainian Intelligence Service. She was sentenced to eight years in prison on charges of high treason in July 2021. As for Konstantin Shiring, he is accused of obtaining information about military units of the Russian Southern Military District dislocated in Crimea and passing it on to Ukraine’s Military Intelligence.
Trial of Konstantin Shiring. Source: rg.ru
In recent years, the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) has detained a number of people on charges of espionage:
Why the Event is Important: After the 2014 events when Russia annexed Crimea and openly supported separatists in eastern Ukraine, the “spy war” between Russia and Ukraine intensified. There have been frequent reports of “spies” on both sides indicating a high degree of military-political confrontation between Moscow and Kyiv. Given the sharp military-political confrontation between Russia and Ukraine, a further intensification of the “spy war” should be anticipated.
Russian Court Sentences Crimean Tatars to Imprisonment
Main Event: On February 11, 2022, a military court of the Southern District sentenced two Crimean Tatars to prison.
Event in Details: Two Crimean Tatars, Zekiria Muratov and Vadym Bektemirov, were found guilty of being members of the Hizb ut-Tahrir group, an Islamic radical group whose activities are banned in Russia and many other countries, and were sentenced to up to 12 years in prison. It is noteworthy that on February 9, the Russian Federal Security Service arrested four more Crimean Tatars on charges of operating on behalf of the Hizb ut-Tahrir group.
The detention of Crimean Tatars has become a commonplace since the Russia’s annexation of the Crimean peninsula in 2014. The Russian Security Services consider Crimean Tatars unreliable and react sharply to any political activity on their part. Criticism of the annexation, especially from the local population, including the Crimean Tatars, is perceived by Russia as a hostile move and, therefore, Moscow is trying to pursue a repressive policy against them. Leaders of the Crimean Tatars are either in exile or in prison. Allegations of being a member of a radical Islamic group are being actively used to detain unreliable Crimean Tatars.
Why the Event is Important: For Russia, support for its policy by ethnic or different groups living in Crimea is essential to legitimize the annexation. Criticism of the annexation, especially from the local population, including the Crimean Tatars, is perceived by Russia as a hostile move and, therefore, Moscow is trying to pursue a repressive policy against them.
Russian Deputy Prime Minister Visits Armenia
Main Event: On February 2, 2022, the Russian Deputy Prime Minister, Alexei Overchuk, visited Armenia.
Event in Details: Mher Grigoryan, the Deputy Prime Minister of Armenia, hosted his Russian counterpart. The parties discussed the issues of bilateral trade and economic cooperation, including the activities of the South Caucasus Railway (a rail operator in Armenia owned by a Russian state company). Prospects for the restoration of transport communications in the South Caucasus were also discussed at the meeting.
Alexei Overchuk co-chairs a working group which was set up after the second Nagorno-Karabakh war in 2020. The working group is to ensure the restoration of economic and transport ties in the region. No tangible progress has yet been achieved in this regard.
Why the Event is Important: Russia plays a special role in the Armenian economy and, therefore, such visits serve to protect Russia’s economic interests.
Russian President Hosts His Kazakh Counterpart
Main Event: On February 10, 2022, the Russian President, Vladimir Putin, hosted the Kazakh President, Kassym-Jomart Tokayev.
Meeting between the Presidents. Source: kremlin.ru
Event in Details: At the meeting, Mr. Putin stated that Kazakhstan “became a victim of some international gangs but now the country stands firmly on its feet thanks to the efforts of the government.” The Kazakh President agreed with this assessment saying that “it was a carefully prepared operation of international terrorists, bandits, who attacked Kazakhstan and was aimed at undermining the constitutional order and staging a coup d’état.” The Russian President promised his Kazakh counterpart to further provide trainings for military specialists. The parties also discussed the issue of military-technical cooperation.
As part of the visit, Kassym-Jomart Tokayev also met with the Russian Prime Minister, Mikhail Mishustin.
Why the Event is Important: This is the first face-to-face meeting between the Russian and Kazakh Presidents since the January dramatic events in Kazakhstan when protests escalated into unprecedented unrest across the country. Russia provided crucial assistance to the President of Kazakhstan in restoring order in the country. This visit is an indicator of Russia’s growing influence over the political processes in Kazakhstan.
Russian Reduces Gas Price for Moldova, However Payment Remains a Problem
Main Event: In February, Russian gas price for Moldova fell by USD 83 to USD 563.
Event in Details: According to Vadim Cheban, the Head of Moldovagaz, the price reduction will allow the company to compensate for financial misconduct (which currently totals USD 111 million). The company paid USD 647 per 1,000 cubic meters of gas in January, the price was USD 550 in December and USD 450 in November. A new five-year agreement was signed between Russia and Moldova in November last year. Under the agreement, Moldova must pay for the consumed gas by the 20th of each month and make an advance payment for the next month’s delivery.
Paying for Russian gas is becoming an increasingly problematic issue for Moldova. Gazprom, Moldova’s main supplier of gas, has once again threatened to cut off gas supplies due to non-payment. On January 20, the Moldovan parliament even approved a 60-day state of emergency over the energy sector due to non-payment of Russian gas bills. Against the background of the accumulated debt to Gazprom, Moldovagaz increased gas tariff for consumers by 40%.
Why the Event is Important: The issue of gas supplies remains a key concern in Moldovan-Russian relations. Paying increased prices for gas places a heavy burden on the Moldovan budget and results in monthly crises. Russia will retain its leverage over Moldova and the pro-Western Moldovan government will also have limited room for political maneuver if Moldova fails to reduce its dependence on Russian gas in the short run. This will also allow the pro-Russian opposition to strengthen its shaky political positions.
Ukraine Receives Gas from Hungary
Main Event: Ukraine receives gas from Hungary via a reverse flow mechanism for the first time.
Event in Details: Hungary is the second country after Slovakia which physically supplied gas to Ukraine via a reverse flow. Previously, gas pipeline network operated only from Ukraine to Hungary. As a result of technical intervention, gas transportation is already possible in both directions. Technical improvements also made it possible to receive gas from a Croatian liquefied gas terminal.
Ukraine no longer buys gas directly from Russia from 2015 and produces virtual gas reversals from Europe. Formally, Ukraine buys gas from European companies, however, actually uses transit gas which goes from Russia to Europe via the Ukrainian gas transportation system.
Despite the confrontation between the West and Russia, Hungary’s relations with Russia are developing. In September 2021, Hungary signed a 15-year deal with Gazprom on supplying 4.5 billion cubic meters of gas annually. On October 1 last year, gas delivery started through the TurkStream pipeline via the Black Sea bypassing Ukraine’s gas pipeline network. Kyiv negatively assesses the Hungarian-Russian energy cooperation and gas transit bypassing Ukraine is considered a politically and economically unjustified decision. In turn, Russia criticizes gas transportation from Hungary to Ukraine via a reverse flow mechanism.
Why the Event is Important: In order to minimize its reliance on Russian energy resources, Ukraine is actively looking for new routes for gas imports. The construction of new pipelines is expensive and requires political support. Technical re-equipment of the existing pipeline network will provide an opportunity of developing an alternative route from Russia in the short run.
Russian Ruling Party Supports Anatoly Bibilov
Main Event: On February 8, 2022, the de facto President of the Tskhinvali region, Anatoly Bibilov, hosted representatives of the United Russia ruling political party who arrived to attend a session of the United Ossetian party (incumbent president’s party) in the region.
Event in Details: The Russian delegation was chaired by the Secretary of the General Council of the party, Andrey Turchak. He was accompanied by lawmakers of the State Duma: Dmitry Sablin, Alexander Karelin and Andrey Krasov. Delegations from the self-proclaimed Donbass and Luhansk People’s Republics were also present. During the meeting, an agreement was signed between the United Russia and the United Ossetia parties. The agreement is aimed at “facilitating cooperation between the parties as well as improving the living standards of the population in the region and implementing an investment program.” Mr. Turchak said this would be an additional impetus for the de facto republic for developing an investment program and overcoming socio-economic problems.
Russian Delegation at the Nomination of Anatoly Bibilov’s Candidacy for the Presidential Elections. Source: Web-page of the United Russia
The Russian delegation took part in the VIII congress of the United Ossetia party where the incumbent de facto President, Anatoly Babilov, was nominated to run for the presidency. The so-called presidential elections in the Tskhinvali region are scheduled for April 10. Mr. Turchak criticized opponents of the de facto government of the Tskhinvali region and recalled the 2008 events when Russia helped the “republic” in repelling an attack of the Georgian army.
The Russian President, Vladimir Putin, extended birthday greetings to Anatoly Bibilov on his birthday during a telephone conversation on February 6.
Why the Event is Important: The open support of Russian high-ranking officials for the incumbent president’s candidacy is a message to the people of the Tskhinvali region that Moscow’s favorite is Anatoly Bibilov which increases his chances to get reelected. However, remembering the past illegitimate presidential elections in the Tskhinvali region (in Abkhazia as well), the support of the Kremlin is not always a guarantee of success.