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The Week In Russia: The Swap, The 'Smart Vote,' The Sucker Punch, The Spy

Ukrainian film director Oleh Sentsov hugs his daughter Alina Sentsova upon arrival in Kyiv after the Russia-Ukraine prisoner swap on September 7.

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Russia and Ukraine exchanged prisoners in a swap that seemed lopsided beneath the symmetry, and Muscovites hand the ruling party a stinging blow -- while an election observer is sucker punched in a stark video that pretty much says it all. Plus, debate over how much a CIA informant in the Kremlin might have known.

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

Two Big Differences

There have been some stark contrasts between events in Ukraine and Russia in the last few years, the upshot of which might amount to a feeling that in Ukraine, the future is uncertain and colored by excitement while in Russia, it’s uncertain and tinged with trepidation. Partly sunny, partly cloudy.

Take the presidential election in Russia in 2018, and in Ukraine this year.

The former featured a cast of well-known characters in a contest whose outcome was clear far in advance. Arguably, the main result was that once it was over, speculation could turn squarely to the next vote, scheduled for 2024, and to what President Vladimir Putin might do to retain power despite being barred from reelection by term limits.

In Ukraine there were 39 candidates on the ballot. It took a runoff vote to confirm that comic actor and TV personality Volodymyr Zelenskiy would send incumbent Petro Poroshenko packing after a single term, giving the political novice a chance to implement stalled reforms and seek an end to the war with Russia-backed separatists in the eastern region known as the Donbas.

An even starker contrast, though, came out this month in an event that was superficially symmetrical: the September 7 prisoner swap between Moscow and Kyiv.

On the surface everything was equal, at least in terms of the numbers: Each side sent the other 35 people who had been in custody.

But the greetings the two groups got upon arrival, and the images that emerged, could not have been more different.

On the Ukrainian side, the mood on the tarmac in Kyiv was captured by a photograph showing a boy about to jump into the arms of his returning father as one of the other former captives, standing on line to be greeted by Zelenskiy, watches with a smile.

On the Russian side, a photograph of those released by Ukraine and sent to Moscow showed them with their faces blurred, presumably to hide their identities -- which in most cases, in contrast to those released from Russia and sent to Kyiv, were not widely known to the public in the first place. And they were met not by the Russian president but by Dmitry Kiselyov, the state media executive and weekly news host who is widely seen as the Russian president’s chief propagandist.

'Shoot Films And Live'

If the Kremlin sent a showman to suggest that Zelenskiy is nothing more than a showman, as it has at times in the past, that seems like some convoluted piece of trolling that might go unnoticed by pretty much everyone involved. More likely, the receptions were different in part because most of those sent to Moscow by Kyiv were not going home: they are, or were, Ukrainians.

A related reason may be that while Zelenskiy obviously could expect a political boost from the swap, for Ukraine the main goal seems to have been straightforward: to get its citizens out of Russian jails and prisons and get them back to their country.

The stakes were high. Film director Oleh Sentsov, who opposed Russia’s seizure of his native Crimea in 2014 and said at trial that he would not seek leniency because “a court of occupiers cannot be just,” had been serving a 20-year term at a prison near the Arctic Circle.

If he had served his whole sentence and survived it, he would have been about 58 years old upon release. Now, he said, he plans to “shoot films and live.”

The 24 sailors taken into custody after the Russian coast guard rammed one of their vessels and seized three of them near the tense Kerch Strait off Crimea in November 2018, meanwhile, had been held at the Lefortovo jail in Moscow and faced up to six years in prison apiece if tried and convicted on border violation charges.

For Russia, the motives for the prisoner exchange may have been more pragmatic.

The immediate goal is widely believed to have been getting Volodymyr Tsemakh, a suspect in the shoot down of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17, out of reach of the Dutch-led prosecutors investigating the downing of the passenger jet in the war zone in eastern Ukraine in 2014 -- though they did question him before the swap.

In what does look like trolling or a taunt, however, Tsemakh was apparently returning to Ukraine -- that is, to territory held by the Russia-backed separatists in the Donetsk region -- just days after he was released in Kyiv and flown to Moscow in the swap.

“There is happiness in life, there is justice,” Tsemakh‘s daughter wrote on social media.

Try telling that to the relatives of the 298 people killed, dozens of them children, when MH17 was shot down by missile while on a flight from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur.

Beyond getting Tsemakh out of Kyiv, it seems likely that for Putin, the prisoner exchange was a means to at least one end. After all, the dozens of Ukrainians arrested and jailed since Moscow’s takeover of Crimea have been seen, at least by Kremlin critics, as hostages seized to serve as bargaining chips.

In large part, Russia just cashed in.

More than 100 Ukrainians, including dozens of Crimean Tatars -- the indigenous, mostly Muslim ethnic group whose members largely opposed the takeover and boycotted the referendum the Kremlin used to suggest it was legitimate -- remain behind bars in Russia.

But by releasing Russia’s most prominent Ukrainian prisoners, Putin may have won some geopolitical capital with both Kyiv and the West.

What he hopes to do with it at this point remains unclear. One big question now is whether Russia will take further steps to end the war in the Donbas and, beyond that, to improve ties with the West.

Now What?

Success on those fronts could make things easier for Putin as he starts to grapple more urgently with “the 2024 problem,” providing a more manageable economic and geopolitical backdrop for whatever maneuvers might be in store.

Analysts guess he may start making his moves around 2021, when the next election to the State Duma, the lower house of parliament, is due to be held.

By coincidence -- surely -- the prisoner swap came one day before a Moscow legislative vote that underscored a phenomenon that could complicate Putin’s plans for the next few years: the public’s distaste for the party he has used as a main tool of his rule for nearly two decades, United Russia.

Even with its candidates running as independents to avoid being dragged down by the United Russia name, the ruling party took a big hit in the Moscow City Duma election -- with a new tactic employed by opposition politician Aleksei Navalny helping land the blow.

Still, state-backed candidates fared much better outside Moscow, particularly in the races for governor -- not without substantial support, according to observers and critics, from ballot-stuffing and other fraud. And the Kremlin, both on and off the record, professed to be pleased with the results.

Funny way of showing it, though: On September 12, four days after the elections, police and security forces raided Navalny’s offices in more than 40 cities and towns across Russia and searched the homes of dozens of activists who support him -- an echo of the crackdown on protests in Moscow ahead of the vote.

Alina Polyakova, a fellow at the Washington-based Brookings Institute, called the raids “another sign of increasing regime insecurity” and of the government’s willingness to use force “to stomp out any dissent.”

Low Blow

If a handful of photographs told the story of the prisoner swap between Moscow and Kyiv on September 7, it arguably took a single short video to capture the essence of the Russian local and regional elections on September 8.

The clip shows a man in civilian clothes sauntering up unnoticed to an election observer who was seeking to document possible violations at a polling place in St. Petersburg, where alleged fraud was rampant, and punching him -- hard -- in the stomach.

Election Observer Sucker Punched In St. Petersburg
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The blow left Vasily Dyachenko, 30, doubled over in pain but drew no response whatsoever from police and election administrators sitting a few meters away -- no effort to help the victim or take action against the apparent attacker.

Inside Job

How much information -- and how useful to the United States -- could a mid-level mole in the Kremlin get?

That’s one of the many questions being asked, and debated, following reports that the United States “extracted from Russia one of its highest-level covert sources” in 2017, as CNN, which broke the story, put it.

The New York Times said the informant had held “an influential position that came with access to the highest level of the Kremlin,” and “was instrumental to the CIA’s most explosive conclusion about Russia’s interference campaign [in the 2016 U.S. presidential election]: that President Vladimir V. Putin ordered and orchestrated it himself.”

Media reports suggest the alleged CIA informant is very probably Oleg Smolenkov, a longtime Russian Foreign Ministry, government, and presidential administration employee who disappeared with his family on a trip to Montenegro that year -- and may have disappeared again, overnight earlier this week, from a sprawling Virginia home that a couple named Smolenkov bought in 2018.

Some analysts cast doubt on the notion that the informant -- if it was Smolenkov, who media reports said was long a subordinate to Yury Ushakov, a former ambassador to Washington who has been Putin’s foreign-policy aide for years -- could have been quite such a valuable asset.

“If Putin planned a major intelligence operation to disrupt the U.S. 2016 election, none of these plans would have gone through Ushakov, and he probably wouldn’t be privy to any of them,” Bloomberg Opinion columnist Leonid Bershidsky wrote.

“If Smolenkov was a spy, he could have delivered important insights about Russia’s foreign-policy thinking and planning to U.S. intelligence,” Bershidsky wrote. “But if he was the source for the U.S. intelligence community’s certainty that Putin personally orchestrated a covert interference campaign, that certainty rests on a weak foundation.”

The Russian daily Vedomosti, however, cited an unnamed source it said was close to Russia’s intelligence services as saying that for at least five years, Smolenkov was the senior adviser on Ushakov’s staff.

In that position, it cited the source as saying, he “had access to highly sensitive information, including information from the intelligence services.”

On both sides, these assessments do not seem to address a possibility that might be impossible to rule out entirely: the idea that at meetings or conversations in the Kremlin, senior officials -- including the most senior official -- might convey important information with a simple boast.

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    Steve Gutterman

    Steve Gutterman is the editor of the Russia/Ukraine/Belarus Desk in RFE/RL's Central Newsroom in Prague and the author of The Week In Russia newsletter. He lived and worked in Russia and the former Soviet Union for nearly 20 years between 1989 and 2014, including postings in Moscow with the AP and Reuters. He has also reported from Afghanistan and Pakistan as well as other parts of Asia, Europe, and the United States.

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The Week In Russia presents some of the key developments in the country over the past week, and some of the takeaways going forward. It's written by Steve Gutterman, the editor of RFE/RL's Russia/Ukraine/Belarus Desk.

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