Review period: May 1-15, 2020
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.
Ukraine Detains Another Spy
Main Event: On May 6, 2020, the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU) arrested one individual on charges of espionage in favor of Russia. The detainee was accused of illegally sharing information about “modern missile systems.”
Event in Details: According to the SBU, a person living in the Luhansk region, Ukraine, was detained while handing over “secret technical documentation” about Ukrainian missile systems to the Russian Federal Security Service in exchange for payment.
Shortly before this arrest on April 14, 2020, the Security Service of Ukraine arrested the SBU Major General, Valery Shaitanov, on charges of high treason and terrorist plots. On March 31, the SBU also announced that a secret communication channel was deciphered between a high-ranking Ukrainian naval officer, stationed in the occupied Crimea, and a representative of the Russian Federal Security Service.
Why the Event is Important for Ukraine: After the 2014 events in Crimea and Donbass, Ukraine has become a special target of the Russian Special Services. In Ukraine, increased arrests of spies in recent years on charges of collaborating with Russia indicate that exposing Russian spies and reducing Russian influence in the security sector has become a priority for the Ukrainian Special Services.
New US Ambassador to Ukraine
Main Event: On May 1, 2020, the US President, Donald Trump, nominated the Lieutenant General, Keith Dayton, as the US Ambassador to Ukraine. Dayton's candidacy must be approved by the Senate.
Keith Dayton. Source: Wikipedia
Event in Details: Keith Dayton has been the Director of the George Marshall European Center for Security Studies in Germany since 2010 and the Senior Adviser to the US Defense Forces to Ukraine. Dayton also worked as the US Defense Attaché at the US Embassy in Moscow.
The United States have not had an ambassador to Ukraine since Trump recalled the Ambassador, Marie Yovanovitch, in May 2019. Yovanovitch was a key witness at the Trump impeachment trial in the US House of Representatives.
The nomination of the ambassador was preceded by the complication of US-Ukrainian relations. Reportedly, during a telephone conversation in July 2019, Trump pressured the Ukrainian President, Volodymyr Zelensky, to investigate the entourage of his political opponent, Joe Biden; otherwise, he threatened to withhold promised military assistance to Kyiv. The reports sparked an impeachment trial against Trump and resulted in the resignation of several key US officials handling the Ukrainian direction.
The Foreign Minister of Ukraine welcomed Dayton’s appointment and said that he had met him in his previous role as an adviser on defense reforms.
Why the Event is Important for Ukraine: The new US ambassador is a well-versed diplomat in Ukraine. In addition to the military field, he has working experience in Russia which is especially valuable in the light of the confrontation between Ukraine and Russia and the ongoing military conflict in Donbass. Kyiv expects that this appointment will contribute to the development of the Armed Forces of Ukraine as well as attract financial and technical assistance from Washington to modernize Ukraine’s military infrastructure.
Why the Event is Considerable for Russia: Within two weeks, Washington nominated new ambassadors to Ukraine and Belarus (after a 12-year hiatus). In both cases, the candidates are well-versed in the ongoing processes in the post-Soviet space. Their appointment is a signal to Moscow that the United States is seriously planning to develop relations with these countries, two of the most important countries for Moscow, and reduce their political and economic dependence on Russia.
Belarus Buys American Oil
Main Event: On May 15, 2020, the Minister of Foreign Affairs of Belarus, Vladimir McKay, announced the purchase of the first batch of oil from the United States.
Event in Details: The foundation of Belarus-US cooperation in the field of energy was laid in February during a visit of the US Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, to Minsk. Amid the cessation of oil imports from Russia to Belarus in January 2020, Pompeo expressed full readiness to sell the required oil reserves to Belarus.
On May 17, an 80,000-ton oil tanker will depart from Texas and arrive in Belarus via the port of Klaipeda (Lithuania) in June.
In January 2020, after negotiations on oil prices with Russian oil companies stalled, Belarus began to diversify its oil imports. This year, Belarus, in addition to the US, has already received alternative oil from Norway, Azerbaijan and Saudi Arabia. In March, amid falling world oil prices, Belarus also agreed on acceptable prices with Russian companies.
Why the Event is Important for the US: The official visit of the US Secretary of State to Belarus after a long pause confirmed that Washington's policy towards Minsk has changed. In addition to cooperation in the energy sector, this was the first political step taken. After a 12-year hiatus, Washington nominated an ambassador to Belarus. Washington's goal is to weaken Russia's economic and political influence in Belarus.
Why US Oil Import is Important for Belarus: Oil cooperation with the United States is an important element for Belarus to ensure its energy security and economic sovereignty. In addition, energy cooperation may contribute to the political climate and accelerate the easing/lifting of sanctions imposed on Minsk by Washington.
Construction of the Belarusian Nuclear Power Plant is Financed by Russia
Main Event: On May 11, 2020, the Deputy Minister of Energy of Belarus, Mikhail Mikhadyuk, said that the construction and the design of the Belarusian Nuclear Power Plant, also called the Astravets NPP, conforms to standards set by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and other international nuclear energy watchdogs.
Event in Details: The Astravets NPP is the first nuclear power plant in Belarus which is built in the Grodno district. The combined capacity of the first two reactors will be 2,400 MW. The plant is being built by Atomstroyexport, a subsidiary of Rosatom, Russia’s state-owned nuclear company. The construction of the plant began in 2011. As scheduled, Unit 1 of the plant will be commissioned for commercial operation in July and Unit 2 will go online in 2021. The Asrtavets NPP will cost USD 10 billion which Belarus received from Russia as a state loan.
Construction of the nuclear power plant. Source: Web-page of the Belarusian Nuclear Power Plant
The plant lies just 50 kilometers from the Lithuanian capital of Vilnius. Lithuania is concerned that Belarus has “unaddressed” deficiencies at the plant and believes that the implementation of the project by Russia has not only economic but also political and geopolitical motives.
Why the Project Implementation is Important for Belarus: The commissioning of the nuclear power plant will enable Belarus to refuse to import electricity and will provide an opportunity to export it to the lucrative EU market, including Lithuania.
Why the Event is Important for Russia: Russia is building nuclear power plants in many countries around the world. The commissioning of the plant in Belarus will enhance Russia's reputation in this field and create opportunities for new projects. At the same time, the operation of the station will make Belarus reliant on Russia as Russia will provide nuclear fuel for the station. Belarus will also have to repay the USD 10 billion Russian loan that Minsk received for the construction of the plant.
Parade on May 9 – Lukashenko’s Symbolic Victory
Main Event: The 75th anniversary of the victory in the Great Patriotic War was modestly celebrated in the post-Soviet countries; however, there were exceptions.
Event in Details: Due to the threat of the spread of the new coronavirus, events related to the May 9 celebration were postponed in post-Soviet countries. The only exception was Belarus where the ceremony was held as planned. Despite the increase in the number of infected people and the warning of the World Health Organization, the President of Belarus, Aleksander Lukashenko, still held a multi-thousand-attendee event.
Unlike Lukashenko, the Russian President, Vladimir Putin, alone paid tribute to the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in the Alexander Garden and addressed the population. This was Putin's first speech after 32 days of self-isolation. After Putin's speech, federal TV channels showed an aerial parade from Red Square that lasted five minutes.
Vladimir Putin at the May 9 event. Source: BBC
Why the Event is Important: Russia was particularly preparing for the 75th anniversary of the victory in the Great Patriotic War; however, despite the ideological significance of the date, the threat of the spread of the new coronavirus was considered as priority and the Kremlin made a tough decision and postponed the event. Against this background, Lukashenko stressed that nothing could prevent the event from taking place and he even invited guests from Russia. The celebration of May 9 in Moscow and Minsk took the form of a symbolic confrontation which Lukashenko won. This fact will be another unpleasant page in the book of Lukashenko-Putin relations as it appeared that the Belarusian leader, “unlike Putin, was not afraid of the virus,” and celebrated the 75th anniversary with dignity.
Russian Vessel Will Ensure the Completion of the Nord Stream 2 Pipeline Project
Main Event: According to the Russian media, the Akademik Cherskiy vessel anchored in the Baltic Sea will complete the Nord Stream 2 pipeline project under the US sanctions. The Nord Stream 2 pipeline project will directly connect Russia to Germany.
The Russian pipe layer vessel Akademik Cherskiy. Source: MarineTraffic
Event in Details: The Akademik Cherskiy is a subsea pipe layer vessel which has been in operation since 2015. The ship belongs to Gazprom Flot, a Gazprom subsidiary. The vessel set sail from the port of Nakhodka (the Far East) to the Baltic Sea in February after it was announced that the US would impose sanctions on foreign companies involved in the Nord Stream 2 project. The Swiss Allseas company refused to extend the project on December 21, 2019. Reportedly, 94% of the Nord Stream 2 project is completed.
Gazprom and government officials expect that the US sanctions will delay the completion of the Nord Stream 2 project until Q1 2021, at the latest. Upon the completion of the pipeline, the Nord Stream 1’s productivity will be doubled to 110 billion cubic meters per year which is more than a quarter of the EU’s gas consumption. The Nord Stream 2 will stretch across the Baltic Sea and directly connect Russia to Germany, bypassing Ukraine. The Nord Stream 2 will be the longest offshore pipeline (1,230 km) in the world.
Why the Project Implementation is Important for Russia: Completing the Nord Stream 2 project independently with its own resources would be an ambitious accomplishment for Russia. The timely completion of the project will enable the Kremlin to minimize its reliance on Ukraine’s pipeline network for transiting gas to Europe in the nearest future and establish direct ties with Germany – the main consumer of Russian gas.
New Challenges: On May 15, Germany’s energy regulator declined to grant a waiver of European Union gas directives to operators of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline. Against Russia’s wishes, this means that the project is not exempt from EU unbundling rules that require separate operators for the production, transport and distribution of energy for the section that runs through German territory.
Moldova: Fight for Russian Credit
Main Event: On May 7, 2020, the President of the Constitutional Court of Moldova, Domnica Manole, said that a ten-year agreement on a EUR 200 million loan with Russia was unconstitutional. “The court decision is final and cannot be appealed,” she said. According to a spokesman for the Russian Foreign Ministry, “this decision comes as a surprise and a regret.”
Event in Details: The Moldovan pro-Russian President, Igor Dodon, announced that Russia and Moldova signed a EUR 200 million loan agreement on April 17. The Dodon government hoped that the Russian loan would help to eliminate a severe budget deficit caused by the new coronavirus pandemic. The parliament approved the agreement on April 23; however, the Constitutional Court suspended the loan agreement based on an appeal by a pro-Western opposition lawmaker on the same day.
The country's pro-Western opposition criticized the ten-year loan granted by Russia which they say poses a long-term threat as it allows spending money on unnecessary projects in favor of Russian companies. In addition, the opposition believes that the loan is a political move by Russia to help the pro-Russian Dodon win the upcoming presidential elections.
According to Dodon, pro-Western forces want to reject the Russian loan in order to provoke an economic crisis, spark protests and thus return to power. After the Constitutional Court announced the final decision, Dodon said that he would once again apply to Russia for a credit.
Why Russian Credit is Important for Moldova: In the wake of the upcoming presidential elections, Russian credit became a major issue in the domestic political life of Moldova. Dodon is going to run in the elections for a second term. Most likely, his main rival is the pro-Western former Prime Minister, Maia Sandu. During the run-up to the election, Dodon sees Russian credit as a way to tackle the economic crisis caused by the new coronavirus pandemic and boost his electoral rating. For their part, Dodon's pro-Western opponents see the loan as the Kremlin’s political decision which they say is aimed at supporting pro-Russian forces in Moldova.
Kyrgyzstan Asks Russia to Supply Gas at a Reduced Price
Main Event: During a telephone conversation with the Russian Deputy Prime Minister, Andrei Overchuk, on May 11, 2020, the Deputy Prime Minister of Kyrgyzstan, Erkin Asrandiev, asked to reduce the price of Russian gas.
Event in Details: Due to the economic crisis caused by the new coronavirus pandemic, Kyrgyzstan asks Russia to consider the possibility of reducing the price of Russian gas from USD 170 to USD 150 per 1,000 cubic meters.
Russia is the main gas supplier to Kyrgyzstan. On April 10, 2014, the Russian state-owned energy giant Gazprom bought a 100% stake in KyrgyzgazProm for USD 1. KyrgyzgazProm has exclusive rights to import natural gas to the Kyrgyz Republic from Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan and owns the national gas transmission and distribution systems. Before 2014, Kyrgyzstan depended on Uzbek and Kazakh gas. Kyrgyzstan still receives Uzbek and Kazakh gas, but through Gazprom.
Armenia also asked Russia to reduce the gas price last month. On May 14, during a meeting with the Russian Prime Minister, Sergei Ruma, the Belarusian President, Aleksander Lukashenko, expressed dissatisfaction with the Russian gas price: “I was informed that during this difficult period, Russia is selling natural gas to Europe at a price of up to USD 70, and not at USD 127, which is the price of gas for Belarus.”
Why the Reduction of Gas Price is Important for Kyrgyzstan: Amid the new coronavirus crisis and a sharp drop in global energy prices, Kyrgyzstan hopes to offset economic costs by lowering the price of Russian gas.
Uzbekistan Joins the Eurasian Economic Union as an Observer
Main Event: On May 11, 2020, the Upper House of the Supreme Assembly of Uzbekistan approved the accession to the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU) as an observer.
Event in Details: Earlier, on April 28, prior to the final decision of the Upper House, the Lower House of the Supreme Assembly also supported Uzbekistan's accession to the EAEU as an observer. According to decision-makers, Uzbekistan will be able to export agricultural products to the EAEU member states without customs clearance, cooperation in the field of transport and communications and cargo transit will be improved and Uzbek labor migrants in the EAEU member countries will receive certain benefits.
Opponents say that the cooperation with the EAEU will lead to reduced productivity in some areas, job losses, reduced investment in industry and slower modernization. Prices for local products will rise, their competitiveness will decline and the import share in the domestic market will increase. Some MPs see membership in the World Trade Organization as a priority, rather than in the pro-Russian Eurasian Economic Union.
The decision of the Supreme Assembly of Uzbekistan preceded a visit of the Uzbek President, Shavkat Mirziyoyev, to Moscow which is scheduled in June.
Why the Event is Important for Uzbekistan: The Uzbek President, Shavkat Mirziyoyev, unlike his predecessor, Islam Karimov, is eager to develop relations with Russia. Mirziyoyev’s foreign policy is less isolationist and more involved in regional cooperation. The Uzbek authorities hope that the observer status in the EAEU is enough to reap economic or political benefits. As for full membership, this is considered a long-term perspective.
Uzbekistan Restricts the Use of the Russian Language
Main event: According to a bill prepared by the Ministry of Justice of Uzbekistan, public servants will be fined for failing to use the state language (Uzbek) in written business.
Event in Details: The spokeswoman of the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Maria Zakharova, responded to the ongoing controversy over the bill. According to her, supporters of the use of the state language in written business are obviously in a minority. Observing discussions in the media, one can say that the majority is in favor of preserving the Russian language in the official sphere which fully corresponds to the interests of numerous citizens of Uzbekistan who often prefer to study and work in Russia.
For its part, the Uzbek Ministry of Justice accused some Russian media outlets of propaganda and disseminating false information about the state language bill.
Although Uzbek is the state language, the Russian language is still widely used in Uzbekistan. There are Russian-language schools in the country and written business is conducted in Uzbek and Russian as well.
Status of the Russian language
In post-Soviet countries (except of Russia), the Russian language is the state language only in Belarus and holds a leading place in everyday life and business. The Russian language has the status of an official language in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan and is actively used in state organizations and in written business. In Tajikistan, Russian is the language of communication between ethnic groups while in other countries, the Russian language has no status.
Why the Event is Important for Uzbekistan: Almost 30 years have passed since the declaration of independence of Uzbekistan; however, the Russian language is still actively used in state agencies. The prospect of studying and getting a job in Russia pushes many Uzbeks to study Russian. The government hopes to promote the use of the Uzbek language by tightening the legislation as the state language is considered an important factor in the formation of the Uzbek identity and state.
Why the Event is Important for Russia: For Russia, the Russian language is a tool of “soft power” which is considered an important lever for maintaining influence in the post-Soviet space. That is why any restriction of the use of the Russian language is perceived as hostile by Moscow.
New “President” of Abkhazia Visits Russia
Main event: On May 5, 2020, a new “President” of Abkhazia, Aslan Bzhania, visited Moscow.
Event in Details: Since his “presidential” inauguration, which took place on April 23, it was Aslan Bzhania’s first “official” visit to Russia. As Bzhania told the Russian media he was pleased with meetings in Moscow, they have full mutual understanding with the Russian side in terms of developing cooperation in the field of the economy and finance; however, more detailed information about the meeting is not available at the moment.
The Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs made a statement about a telephone conversation with Bzhania. They say that Bzhania had a telephone conversation with the Russian Foreign Minister, Sergey Lavrov, on May 8. The sides discussed topical issues of bilateral relations, including the issue of interaction in the fight against the new coronavirus.
Sergey Lavrov and Aslan Bzhania. Source: Web-page of the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs
Why the Event is Important: Since there was little information about the visit, and given who accompanied Bzhania in Moscow (Bzhania's delegation included the de facto Deputy Prime Minister and the Minister of Finance, Vladimir Delba, and the de facto Deputy Prime Minister and the Minister of Economy, Kristina Ozgan), we might assume that the main purpose of the visit was to gain financial and economic support for Abkhazia amid the new coronavirus crisis.