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The Week In Russia: Poison Gas, Paper Airplanes


It was the week when Russia tried to shut down Telegram.

Editor's Note: To receive The Week In Russia each week via e-mail, subscribe to RFE/RL's Russia Report by clicking here.

Russia sought to shut down Telegram, stood by as Western air strikes targeted its Syrian ally, and avoided a fresh volley of U.S. sanctions -- for now -- while holding off on its own retaliation to punitive measures for its "malign activity around the globe."

Here are some of the key developments in Russia over the past week, and some of the takeaways going forward.

Syria And Salisbury

Russia became a chemical-weapons hero in 2013, at least to some, when it forged a deal with the United States to rid Syria of its stockpiles, averting the prospect of U.S. air strikes. Five years later Moscow stands closer to zero on that score, accused of poisoning a former spy and his daughter with a deadly nerve agent in England and seeking to cover up what Western states say was a Syrian government chemical attack that killed dozens of civilians in Douma, outside Damascus.

"Moscow is willing to accept and impose catastrophic human costs" to achieve its goals in Syria, Assistant Secretary of State Wess Mitchell told U.S. lawmakers on April 18.

But the direct costs for Moscow over the past week were lower than President Vladimir Putin might have expected after U.S. President Donald Trump, in a tweet on April 11, accused Russia of partnering with a "Gas Killing Animal" and warned it should "get ready" because missiles "will be coming" to Syria.

Struggling to blame Washington in advance for any military confrontation between the nuclear-armed Cold War foes, several Russian officials compared the situation to the Cuban Missile Crisis.

The missiles did come, but World War III did not. U.S., British, and French forces chose their targets carefully and the Russian air-defense systems protecting Russian facilities held their fire despite chilling but informal warnings -- never quite backed up by the Kremlin -- that any U.S. missiles fired at Syria would be shot down and the launch sites targeted.

Pinpoint Strikes

For Putin, the outcome could not have been much better. While there was grumbling from hard-line nationalists at home over the lack of a Russian response, the limited nature of the Western air strikes enabled him to avoid openly betraying Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, which analysts say he fears would harm his projected image as a strong and reliable partner against U.S. hegemony despite widespread disdain for the Syrian president. More important, the strikes seem to have done little to set back some of Russia's main goals: maintaining a strong foothold in Syria and influence in Middle East.

May: 'No Practicable Alternative' To Strikes On Syria
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British Prime Minister Theresa May said the Western strikes were "not about regime change" or changing the course of the war in Syria, and there has been no sign they would have such an effect. That leaves Assad firmly in place and Russia with no less power to influence an eventual Syrian "endgame" -- on the battlefield or in talks -- than it had before.

The Douma attack has done further damage to Russia's reputation, however. Accused of failing to make Syria destroy its chemical weapons and then seeking to cover up the carnage in Douma, Russia has doubled down. It denies the government conducted a chemical attack and has made elaborate claims that what occurred was "provocation" possibly staged by Britain -- including an assertion that Syrian troops found smoke grenades from the English city of Salisbury in eastern Ghouta, the area that includes Douma.

Russia's claims about Douma echo the wide-ranging theories it has publicized about the nerve-agent attack in Salisbury on former spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter, Yulia, which Britain and its allies blame on Moscow. In a development that deepened concerns about the credibility and intent of such statements, the head of the Organization for Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) flatly rejected Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov's claims that traces of a second substance -- BZ -- were discovered in the English city.

But Russia has seemed impervious to criticism over such claims since it muddied the waters by supporting outlandish assertions about events in the war in eastern Ukraine, such as the downing of a passenger jet that killed all 298 people aboard in July 2014.

Russian President Vladimir Putin and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in Syria on December 11.
Russian President Vladimir Putin and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in Syria on December 11.

And for the time being, Putin can smile at the mixed signals coming from the United States over potential new sanctions. The U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, said on April 15 that sanctions over Moscow's backing from Assad would be announced the next day. They were not, and Trump's top economic adviser said on April 17 that Haley "got ahead of the curve." White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders said a decision on new sanctions against Russia would be made "in the near future," but Trump was less specific on April 18, "There will be sanctions as soon as they very much deserve it."

It's unclear when that might be. And with Trump hesitating on additional sanctions, Putin also appears to be pulling his punches.

Delayed Reaction

With Moscow still gauging the damage from U.S. sanctions imposed on tycoons, politicians, and security officials close to Putin on April 6, Russian lawmakers on April 13 proposed legislation that would enable his government to retaliate by banning or restricting the import of wide range of U.S. goods and services. Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said on April 16 that Russia would "not delay in adopting legislation" to counter the U.S. sanctions -- but the State Duma did just that the same day, scheduling the first reading of the bill for May 15. That seems like ages away.

That sluggish timeframe suggests Putin may be holding out hope for an end to the downward spiral in U.S. ties and the start of a thaw. In an April 18 report citing four unnamed sources, Bloomberg News said that Putin wants to give Trump "another chance to make good on pledges to improve ties and avoid escalation." One of the sources "said the Kremlin has ordered officials to curb their anti-U.S. rhetoric," the report said.

As if on cue, the Trump administration has now set out its conditions for a thaw.

Days after taking up his post as Trump's new national security adviser, John Bolton told Russian Ambassador Anatoly Antonov that Moscow must address U.S. concerns on election meddling, the "reckless" nerve-agent attack in Britain, and the situations in Ukraine and Syria before relations can substantially improve, the White House said on April 19.

U.S. national security adviser John Bolton
U.S. national security adviser John Bolton

Russia won't like those conditions, as its aggressive rhetoric and adamant denials of wrongdoing on each of those four points makes clear. But Putin will like the statement of interest in better ties and may see even the demands -- as well as the meeting itself -- as a welcome sign of engagement by the United States.

Another sign: In the first such meeting since 2013, the chief of the Russian armed forces general staff held talks with the U.S. general who is NATO's top commander on April 19, in Baku.

Throughout his years in power, both before and after he sent Russia's relations with the West into tailspin by seizing Crimea and backing armed separatists in eastern Ukraine, one of Putin's overarching goals has been to ensure that Moscow has a prominent place in the world stage and as strong a say as possible.

Amid sanctions, diplomatic expulsions, and an onslaught of vehement criticism from the West, Putin may see the meeting between Russian General Valery Gerasimov and U.S. General Curtis Scaparrotti as one of several recent signs in recent days that Moscow will not be entirely shut out -- or shut up.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel signaled potential trouble for the prospects of Russia's Nord Stream II gas pipeline project, and said after a phone call with Putin on April 17 that Russia bears "joint responsibility" for the Douma attack. But she added that "it is nevertheless important to keep talking to Russia."

French President Emmanuel Macron, meanwhile, was quoted as saying on April 15 that he has not abandoned plans to travel in May to St. Petersburg, where Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov earlier said he would be the guest of honor at an annual economic forum hosted by Putin.

Where's That Invite?

There was still no new word about the big prize for Putin: a meeting with Trump, who courted controversy by congratulating the long-ruling Russian president on his reelection in a March 20 telephone call and told reporters the two would "probably get together in the not-too-distant future."

In a sign that Russia is eager to firm up plans for a meeting, Lavrov said in an interview published on April 20 that during that call, Trump said he would be glad to see Putin in the White House and would be happy to make a reciprocal visit to Russia.

"He returned to this topic a couple of times, so we have let our American colleagues know that...considering that President Trump made this proposal, we proceed from the position that he will make it concrete," he said.

U.S. President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin at the APEC summit in Danang in November
U.S. President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin at the APEC summit in Danang in November

At the same time, Lavrov also said that Russia would not offer to host a meeting between Trump and North Korea leader Kim Jong Un.

It would be a blow to Putin's pride -- and Russia's geopolitical standing -- if Trump were to meet with Kim before he meets again with Putin, whom he last saw in person at a G20 meeting in Germany in July 2017. Trump said on April 17 that he hopes to meet with Kim in the next two months and that five locations are under consideration.

'Whack-A-Mole'

U.S. officials have suggested that the air strikes on Syrian facilities were carefully targeted pinpoint strikes. Russia's effort to shut down Telegram -- not so much.

State communications regulator Roskomnadzor ordered Internet service providers on April 16 to block the popular messaging app over its refusal to provide the Federal Security Service (FSB) the encryption keys that would unlock correspondence on Telegram. In starker terms, the KGB's successor wants to read Russians' mail, and the state moved to shut down the postal system when it refused.

What ensued was a virtual chase in which Roskomnadzor blocked millions of IP addresses in what media outlet Meduza described as "basically a game of whack-a-mole" -- the instant you whack one with a hammer, another pops up somewhere else.

Putin's spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, warned users not to "play hide-and-seek" and try to get around the ban, and said the Kremlin -- which used Telegram to schedule Peskov's media conference calls, among other things -- would find another messenger.

But days later, media reports said that several senior officials and lawmakers were still using it and that some -- including Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova and German Klimenko, Putin's adviser on Internet development -- have lashed out at Roskomnadzor over its actions. And as of April 18 the Investigative Committee -- a top Russian law enforcement agency whose head answers to Putin -- was still using Telegram, in at least some cases, for routine statements to the media.

The effort to block Telegram also prompted a unique and colorful protest in which activists -- among them Maria Alyokhina of the punk protest group Pussy Riot -- threw paper airplanes at the headquarters of the FSB on Moscow's Lubyanka Square. At a hearing in which the judge seemed hard-pressed to stifle a laugh, Alyokhina was ordered to perform 100 hours of community service for violating legislation on public assembly.

In the court of public opinion, meanwhile, the verdict on Russia's bid to block Telegram was severe. "A complete and utter fiasco," journalist Aleksei Kovalyov tweeted. But he added that "at least there's good news: Russia is already so globalized and internet dependent that it really can't afford to become a pariah."

'Raped, Tortured, Killed'

The campaign to close down Telegram on Russian soil is particularly notable because its defiant CEO, Pavel Durov, is a 33-year-old Russian whizz-kid who left the country in 2014 after he was forced to sell his stake in another popular social network, VKontakte, amid pressure from the authorities.

Putin's critics say that his government undermines its own stated goal of making Russian flourish by failing to nurture home-grown talent.

Ironically, perhaps, Russian authorities chose this week to unveil a campaign to persuade Russian studying at universities abroad to come home. The Highly Likely Welcome Home campaign comes at a time when relations with Britain -- a popular destination for Russians seeking education abroad -- are severely strained by the poisoning of former Russian double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter, Yulia, in England last month.

Judging by the responses of several Russian students in England, the campaign -- whose name is a trolling play on British Prime Minister Theresa May's statement that it is "highly likely" that Russia was responsible for the attack -- is highly likely to fall flat.

"I am not considering going back to Russia under this proposal. I don't feel any negativity here." Timur Khairov, who is studying machine building at the University of Bath, told RFE/RL's Siberia Desk.

In another development that might make a bright young Russian think twice, the newspaper Novaya Gazeta reported on April 16 that an entrepreneur colleagues called a "Russian Elon Musk" was tortured, raped, and killed in a pretrial detention center in St. Petersburg, where he was found hanging in his cell in February.

Somewhat like Sergei Magnitsky, the whistleblower who died in a Moscow jail in 2009 after being accused of fraud by the same people he claimed stole $230 million from the state, Valery Pshenichny was put behind bars after a former business partner he accused of theft managed to turn the tables on him at trial.

According to Novaya Gazeta, forensics experts ruled out suicide and said Pshenichny's spine was broken, lacerations and stab wounds were found on his body, and electric shock burns from a water-boiler cord were found in his mouth.

A lawyer told the Independent newspaper that when investigators came to Pshenichny's home in January, they told him "to take a good look at his suits."

"He was told he wouldn’t need them anymore, save for his coffin," the lawyer said.

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    Steve Gutterman

    Steve Gutterman is news editor of RFE/RL's Central Newsroom in Prague. He has lived and worked in Russia and the former Soviet Union off and on -- mostly on -- since 1989, including postings in Moscow with the Associated Press and Reuters.

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