The Week In Russia: (Not) Denials And (Not) The Nineties

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The Kremlin issued a strenuous nondenial of a report linking lucrative sweetheart deals to President Vladimir Putin’s purported former son-in-law, drawing comparisons with a decade he disdains. A top-secret “doomsday plane” was stripped of equipment by thieves. And new sanctions underscored the cost, in terms of image at least, of Putin’s reliance on Ramzan Kadyrov.

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

State Of Dismissal

The Kremlin has become practiced in issuing nondenial denials over the years under President Vladimir Putin — and it got some more practice this past week.

First, there was the report that Russian businessman Kirill Shamalov received a slew of offers to buy stakes in some of the country’s biggest companies shortly after marrying Putin’s younger daughter in 2013 — and did consummate at least one sweetheart deal, receiving a stake worth an estimated $380 million in a Russian petrochemicals company for $100.

The December 7 report was the product of an investigation by Russian outlet iStories, and was published in collaboration with the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP). It used leaked e-mails to “shine new light on the closed circle of family and associates who surround the Russian president,” as The Guardian put it.

The Kremlin has done a fair amount to prevent such light from being shed. For example, Putin has acknowledged that he has two daughters but has never publicly confirmed reports revealing their identity — and by extension, he has not acknowledged that Shamalov is his former son-in-law.

In any case, and as is often the case, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov dismissed the iStories/OCCRP report but did not directly deny it.

In remarks quoted by state news agency TASS, he suggested it was part of a disinformation campaign involving “various rumors, often having nothing to do with reality.”

Peskov’s remarks seemed intended to discredit any future reports alleging dubious deals or wrongdoing by Putin and those close to him: “We know, more or less, who is the organizer of this activity, and we know that this work will continue.”

Office Double?

The following day, Peskov dismissed a more bizarre report, this one saying that that the Kremlin has built an office for Putin in Sochi that is identical to his office outside Moscow, and that Putin has frequently — and secretly — worked in the Black Sea resort city at times in recent months.

“It turns out that we don’t know where Putin has been located” in recent weeks or months, the December 8 report by the online publication Proyekt Media said, citing unnamed sources it said were familiar with his schedule as well as analysis of flight-tracking records.

One claim that Peskov did deny was that Putin is having serious health problems. In remarks on December 8, he cast that assertion as part of the same alleged “information exercise” that produced the report about Shamalov but was less equivocal, saying: “As regards [Putin’s] health, that is complete nonsense.”

In remarks to another online Russian news outlet, Peskov called the report “the latest stupidity” but stopped short of a direct denial. He said Putin had been working in the Moscow area and taking trips for work at times, but did not give dates or mention whether he had been in Sochi recently.

Putin, 67, secured the right to run for a fifth presidential term in 2024 and a sixth term in 2030 by pushing though constitutional changes earlier this year.

The late Russian President Boris Yeltsin (left) smiles as he talks to Vladimir Putin, the day he named his prime minister acting president.

The late Russian President Boris Yeltsin (left) smiles as he talks to Vladimir Putin, the day he named his prime minister acting president.

He rose to power in 1999, when President Boris Yeltsin named him prime minister in August and then resigned on New Year’s Eve, making him acting president.

Putin, whose first two terms coincided with an oil-fueled economic boom, has frequently taken aim at the decade before he entered the Kremlin, portraying the 1900s as a modern-day time of troubles in which Russia came close to ceasing to exist in the wake of the Soviet Union’s collapse.

Allies have cast him as a savior who raised the country off its knees, while detractors say problems like corruption have only gotten worse, not to speak of democracy and human rights.

Doomsday Scenario?

For those who argue that Russia took a big wrong turn in the 1990s, one event that stands out is “loans-for-shares” — the controversial auctions, launched 25 years ago, in which leading businessmen bought stakes in top state enterprises at low prices. Putin’s supporters praise him for reining in some of the tycoons who increased their wealth and power in such deals.

But for critics of the Kremlin, Shamalov’s reported windfall – as well as numerous investigations published by other groups, including opposition leader Aleksei Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation – bolster suspicions that corruption and connections are a major part of Putin’s ruling apparatus.

An entirely different occurrence this week evoked memories of the 1990s, when the theft of copper wire, railroad tracks, and other scraps of Soviet-era infrastructure that could be sold for cash was the stuff of frequent news reports — while more alarming reports stemmed from the theft and smuggling of radioactive materials.

On December 9, the Rostov regional branch of the Interior Ministry said that more than 1 million rubles ($13,600) worth of equipment was stolen from an Ilyushin Il-80 — an aircraft dubbed the “doomsday plane” that was designed to shield top officials from the effects of a nuclear explosion — at a military airfield in the southern city of Taganrog.

Russian media earlier reported that thieves broke into the aircraft, described as a highly classified military plane, and stole electronic equipment including radio boards. Military experts say the plane is one of four Il-80s designed to be used as airborne command posts for the Russian president and other top officials in the event of a nuclear conflict.

Peskov described the theft as an “emergency situation” and said that “measures will be taken to prevent this from happening again.”

‘Egregious Activities’

Putin is also credited, including by Putin, for the lower level of violence in the North Caucasus today compared to the 1990s: Two separatist wars wracked Chechnya from 1994 to 2001, killing tens of thousands of people and fueling an Islamist insurgency in that province and other regions nearby.

Since 2007, when he appointed Ramzan Kadyrov to head Chechnya, Putin has relied on a figure reviled by human rights activists to maintain control over the region.

The price of that trade-off, at least in terms of Putin’s image in the West, was underscored when the United States imposed additional sanctions on Kadyrov and announced punitive measures targeting five individuals and six Russia-registered legal entities with close ties to him, including a soccer team based in Chechnya, Akhmat Grozny.

Vladimir Putin with Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov (right) in 2011.

Vladimir Putin with Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov (right) in 2011.

Since sanctions were initially imposed on Kadyrov in 2017, forces under his guidance continued “egregious activities” including “kidnapping, torturing, and killing members of the LGBTI population” in Chechnya, the U.S. Treasury Department said, adding that these forces “are accused of illegal abductions, torture, extrajudicial executions, and other abuses, including the detention of journalists and activists.”

The new sanctions were imposed under the so-called Global Magnitsky Act, a 2016 law that authorizes the U.S. government to seek to punish suspected human rights offenders around the world by freezing any assets in the United States and banning them from entering the country.

The law is named after Sergei Magnitsky, a whistle-blower who was jailed in Moscow, exposed the alleged theft of $230 million from Russian state coffers by a group of state officials. Denied adequate medical treatment and subjected to conditions rights groups said amounted to torture, he died in custody in November 2009, almost a decade after the start of the Putin era.

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