HARVARD UNIVERSITY

 

I. U.S. and Russian priorities for the bilateral agenda

Nuclear security and safety:

  • When asked by the state-owned Russian Public Opinion Research Center in May 2017 to assess which actor is most likely to use weapons of mass destruction against their country, Russians said they viewed al-Qaida and “Chechen terrorists” as the second and third likely source of such an attack after the United States. At the same time, Russians do not appear to be very concerned about proliferation of nuclear weapons among the states. The share of Russians who told the center that they who think Russia and other nuclear powers should refrain from punishing other countries for pursuing nuclear weapons (41%) was greater than the share of Russians who think such aspiring members of the nuclear club should be punished (38%). (Russia Matters, 05.17.17)
  • Russia has started unloading used fuel from nuclear submarines in Andreeva Bay, the former base of the Northern Fleet, a unit of the Russian navy responsible for the defense of the northwestern part of the country. (World Nuclear News, 05.18.17)
  • Russia’s Federal Center for Nuclear and Radiation Safety plans to start using TUK-1410 casks for the transport of used nuclear fuel beginning in September. (World Nuclear News, 05.12.17)
  • The Republic of Kazakhstan, in cooperation with the United States Department of Energy’s National Nuclear Security Administration, opened its Nuclear Security Training Center on May 12 in Ala-Tau, Kazakhstan. The NSTC will train nuclear facility personnel in security disciplines, including physical protection systems, nuclear material accounting and control systems, response forces and secure transportation. (NNSA, 05.15.17)

Iran’s nuclear program and related issues:

  • No significant developments.

Military issues, including NATO-Russia relations:

  • While the White House says U.S. President Donald Trump will reaffirm the U.S. commitment to the alliance in his remarks at the NATO summit on May 25, allies also want a full-throated endorsement of Article 5 of the treaty—the principal that an attack against one member is treated as an attack against all. (Reuters, 05.19.17)
  • NATO may revive a Cold War naval command to counter Moscow’s increased submarine activity in the Arctic and protect Atlantic Sea lanes in the event of a conflict. Top military officers from NATO nations in Brussels this week received a briefing on a review of the proposed command structure, including options for the Atlantic post. NATO aims to complete its command structure review by February 2018. (Wall Street Journal, 05.18.17)
  • On May 17, two Russian Su-24M Fencer attack jets flew quite close to the Royal Netherlands Navy Frigate HNLMS Evertsen operating in the Baltic Sea. The two unarmed aircraft came within 200 meters of the ship. (The Aviationist, 05.17.17)
  • A Russian military jet came within about 20 feet of a U.S. Navy Poseidon surveillance plane while it was flying in international air space over the Black Sea near Crimea, the Pentagon said on May 12. The Russian jet was armed with six air-to-air missiles, making this episode “highly provocative,” one official said. Otherwise, the encounter was “safe and professional,” the Pentagon said. (RFE/RL, 05.13.17)
  • Germany has begun the process of upgrading 103 out-of-service Leopard 2A4 and 2A6 tanks to the latest model, the Leopard 2A7V—an upgrade that will cost the state the equivalent of 760 million euros ($833 million). By revamping and deploying these new vehicles, the Bundeswehr is expanding its tank fleet by over 40 %, from 225 to 320 main battle tanks. (The National Interest, 05.13.17)
  • The U.S. Navy needs to expand its fleet and maritime capability to remain competitive as other nations such as China and Russia seek to strengthen their naval power, Chief of Naval Operations Adm. John Richardson said on May 16. (Reuters, 05.16.17)
  • Russian military inspectors are to conduct an observation flight over the territory of  the United States under the Open Skies Treaty between May 15, 2017 and May 20, 2017. (Interfax, 05.15.17)

Missile defense:

  • No significant developments.

Nuclear arms control:

  • No significant developments.

Counter-terrorism:

  • U.S. President Donald Trump revealed highly classified information to Sergei Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister, and Sergey I. Kislyak, the Russian ambassador to the United States, in a White House meeting last week, according to current and former U.S. officials, who said Trump’s disclosures jeopardized a critical source of intelligence on the Islamic State. (The Washington Post, 05.15.17)
    • Trump told the Russian foreign minister and the Russian ambassador in the Oval Office that the Islamic State had used stolen airport security equipment to test a bomb that could be hidden in electronic devices and slipped undetected into an airplane cabin, the officials said. The information came from Israel. Israeli officials on May 17 sought to downplay any damage caused by Trump’s disclosure of classified information to senior Russian officials that was provided by Israel, and lauded the robust security cooperation with the United States just days before the president is due to arrive for a state visit. (AP, 05.17.17,NBC, 05.17.17)
    • Trump described measures the United States has taken or is contemplating to counter the threat, including military operations in Iraq and Syria, as well as other steps to tighten security, officials said. Most alarmingly, officials said, Trump revealed the city in the Islamic State’s territory where the U.S. intelligence partner detected the threat. “Russia could identify our sources or techniques,” the senior U.S. official said. (The Washington Post, 05.15.17)
    • Trump defended wanting to share terrorism intelligence with Russian officials in a White House meeting last week, saying he has the “absolute right” to do so. “As President I wanted to share with Russia (at an openly scheduled W.H. meeting) which I have the absolute right to do, facts pertaining to terrorism and airline flight safety,” he said in a series of tweets on May 16. “Humanitarian reasons, plus I want Russia to greatly step up their fight against ISIS & terrorism.” But he did not precisely address reports from multiple news outlets that he had disclosed highly classified information to the Russian officials, possibly jeopardizing a relationship with an intelligence-sharing ally. (New York Times, 05.17.17, Bloomberg, 05.15.17)
    • Trump’s national security adviser, H. R. McMaster, issued a statement denying that Trump had disclosed intelligence methods or sources. McMaster told reporters on May 15 that The Washington Post’s account was “false.”  “I was in the room—it didn’t happen,” McMaster said. “At no time—at no time—were intelligence sources or methods discussed, and the president did not disclose any military operations that were not already publicly known,” McMaster said. (New York Times, 05.16.17)
    • Trump did not discuss “sources, methods or military operations” in his meeting with Lavrov, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said on May 15. (Reuters, 05.15.17)
    • “This story is false,” said Dina Powell, deputy national security adviser for strategy. “The president only discussed the common threats that both countries faced.” (The Washington Post, 05.15.17)
    • “We have no way to know what was said, but protecting our nation’s secrets is paramount,” said Doug Andres, a spokesman for House Speaker Paul Ryan. “The speaker hopes for a full explanation of the facts from the administration.” (Bloomberg, 05.15.17)
    • “The White House has got to do something soon to bring itself under control and in order,” Republican Sen. Bob Corker, the chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, told reporters at the Capitol. “Obviously they’re in a downward spiral right now and they’ve got to figure out a way to come to grips with all that’s happening.” (Bloomberg, 05.15.17)
    • Sen. Jack Reed, the ranking Democrat on the Armed Services panel, said sharing information without the permission of a foreign intelligence partner “violates a cardinal rule” of dealing with friendly agencies. (Bloomberg, 05.15.17)
    • Russian President Vladimir Putin has offered to provide the U.S. Senate with a record detailing the meeting between Lavrov and Trump last week. He also accused the United States of “developing political schizophrenia,” claiming that Western officials who feared Russian influence on the U.S. election were either “stupid” or “dangerous and unscrupulous people.” (The Moscow Times, 05.17.17)
    • “We don’t want anything to do with this nonsense,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters on a conference call. “It’s complete nonsense.” (Bloomberg, 05.15.17)
    • Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on May 18 mocked U.S. news reports suggesting that Trump inappropriately shared sensitive intelligence with him about terror threats involving laptops on airplanes. Lavrov said he didn’t understand what the “secret” was since the U.S. introduced a ban on laptops on airlines from some Middle Eastern countries two months ago. (AP, 05.18.17)
    • Russia’s foreign ministry spokeswoman, Maria Zakharova, denied on May 16 that Trump revealed classified information during an Oval Office meeting, but Trump suggested that intelligence details were shared for “humanitarian reasons.” Zakharova posted a comment on Facebook that described the reports of Trump’s disclosures as “yet another fake.” (The Washington Post, 05.16.17)
    • NATO’s chief says he’s confident that all 28 members of the military alliance can safely share information, amid doubts about the nature of Trump’s discussions with Russian diplomats. (AP, 05.18.17)
    • U.S. anti-terrorism officials met for four hours May 17 in Brussels with their European counterparts who are resisting a proposed expansion of a laptop ban in airline passenger cabins. U.S. officials called the threat critical but stopped short of any new action. (Bloomberg, 05.17.17)
  • Top NATO commanders have recommended that the military alliance join the international coalition fighting the Islamic State extremist group. (RFE/RL, 05.17.17)
  • Turkish intelligence has received information about possible attacks on Russian naval ships in the Bosporus by Islamic State militants. (TASS, 05.16.17)
  • More than 400 residents of the Volga Federal District are fighting as part of terrorist groups outside Russia, Russian Security Council Secretary Nikolai Patrushev said. (Interfax, 05.16.17)

Conflict in Syria:

  • A U.S. airstrike struck pro-Syrian government forces that the coalition said posed a threat to American troops and allied rebels operating near the border with Jordan on May 18, the first such close confrontation between U.S. forces and fighters backing Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. The coalition said “apparent” Russian attempts to stop pro-Assad forces from moving toward the army base at Tanf, as well as warning shots and a show of force, had failed. The Syrian regime and its Russian allies condemned the U.S.-led coalition on May 19 for the attack. (AP, 05.18.17, Wall Street Journal, 05.19.17)
  • Hundreds of rebels and their families began leaving a northeastern neighborhood of Damascus and heading toward rebel-held areas in northern Syria on May 14, in another step that would eventually bring all parts of the capital under the control of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. (AP, 05.14.17)
  • Several civilians were killed in an airstrike on an Islamic State held village in northern Syria, activists reported on May 15. It was not immediately clear who is behind the airstrike southeast of the extremist group’s de facto capital of Raqqa, and various activists groups reported different casualty tolls. (AP, 05.15.17)
  • The Syrian government on May 16 forcefully rejected accusations by the United States that the bodies of thousands of executed political prisoners had been disposed of in a crematory at a prison near Damascus, describing the allegations as “lies” used to justify American aggression. The government of President Bashar al-Assad has long been accused of killing thousands of prisoners and burying them in mass graves. But on May 15, the Trump administration made a new charge, accusing Damascus of burning corpses at the Sednaya prison to destroy evidence of war crimes. (New York Times, 05.16.17)
  • The U.S. Treasury says it has imposed sanctions against five people and five entities accused of providing support to Syria’s government or linked to those previously sanctioned over the Syrian government’s reprisals against its citizens. (RFE/RL, 05.17.17)
  • Russian President Vladimir Putin spoke on May 15 about Moscow’s own involvement with the Syrian Kurdish forces, assuring Turkey his country was not planning to arm them. Putin lauded the Kurdish fighters as “one of the most efficient units” against the Islamic State and said Russia has “working contacts” with them. Putin insisted that Moscow would not arm the Kurds because “they have other sources of obtaining the weapons.” (AP, 05.15.17)
  • Guarantors of Syria ceasefire—Russia, Turkey and Iran—are actively working on implementing a memorandum on creating de-escalation zones in Syria, including on drawing up a map and establishing checkpoints, Kazakhstan’s Foreign Minister Kairat Abdrakhmanov said on May 16. (TASS, 05.16.17)
  • In the first concrete results from talks this week on ending Syria’s conflict, the United Nations said the warring sides had agreed to set up expert committees to discuss “constitutional issues.” (AFP, 05.16.17)

Cyber security:

  • On March 2, 2017 a disturbing report hit the desks of U.S. counterintelligence officials in Washington. The report said the Russians had sent expertly tailored messages carrying malware to more than 10,000 Twitter users in the Defense Department. Depending on the interests of the targets, the messages offered links to stories on recent events. When clicked, the links took users to a Russian-controlled server that downloaded a program allowing Moscow’s hackers to take control of the victim’s phone or computer—and Twitter account. At any given moment, perhaps during a natural disaster or a terrorist attack, Pentagon Twitter accounts might send out false information. As each tweet corroborated another, and covert Russian agents amplified the messages even further afield, the result could be panic and confusion. (TIME, 05.18.17)
  • In one case last year, senior intelligence officials tell Time, a Russian soldier based in Ukraine successfully infiltrated a U.S. social media group by pretending to be a 42-year-old American housewife and weighing in on political debates with specially tailored messages. (TIME, 05.18.17)
  • The ranking Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, Mark Warner of Virginia, has said he is looking into why four of the top five Google search results the day the U.S. released a report on the 2016 operation were links to Russia’s TV propaganda arm, RT. (TIME, 05.18.17)
  • Hospitals, major companies and government offices have been hit by a massive wave of cyberattacks across the globe that seize control of computers until the victims pay a ransom. Cybersecurity firm Avast said it had identified more than 75,000 ransomware attacks in 99 countries, making it one of the broadest and most damaging cyberattacks in history. Avast said the majority of the WannaCry virus attacks targeted Russia, Ukraine and Taiwan. (CNN, 05.12.17)
    • Russian President Vladimir Putin accused the United States on May 15 of developing the sophisticated hacking tools used in the worldwide cyberattack, crippling computers including those used by Russian law enforcement agencies. Putin told journalists that Russia “had nothing to do” with the WannaCry virus, which reportedly used infiltration techniques developed by U.S. intelligence agencies. The U.S. hacking codes were previously released in a leak by an online hacking collective that identified itself as Shadow Brokers. Putin also said that intelligence services should beware of creating software that can later be used for malicious means—a reference to global ransomware attacks that researchers say exploited a hacking tool built by the U.S. National Security Agency. An unknown number of computers at the Russian Interior Ministry and Russian Railways company have been infected by the “WCry” virus. The WannaCry cyberattack also compromised Russian banks’ systems in some isolated cases, the Russian central bank said on May 19. (Reuters, 05.19.17, The Washington Post, 05.15.17, Reuters, 05.15.17, The Moscow Times, 05.15.17)
    • Cybersecurity experts are pointing to circumstantial evidence that North Korea may be behind the global “ransomware” attack: the way the hackers took hostage computers and servers across the world was similar to previous cyberattacks attributed to North Korea. (AP, 05.16.17)
    • Governments turned their attention to a possible new wave of cyber threats on May 16 after the Shadow Brokers group that leaked U.S. hacking tools used to launch the global WannaCry ransomware attack warned it would release more malicious code. (Reuters, 05.16.17)
  • Russian President Vladimir Putin has approved a Strategy for Development of an Information Society in the Russian Federation for the period 2017-2030. Amongst other things, the document recommends the use of Russian encryption mechanisms for electronic interchange between federal government bodies and replacement of imported equipment, software and electronics with Russian equivalents. (BBC, 05.17.17)
  • The family of Seth Rich, the Democratic National Committee staffer who was fatally shot last July, is demanding retractions from Fox News and WTTG-TV on May 17. This week, both Fox News and WTTG-TV published and aired reports, sourced to private investigator Rod Wheeler, that said evidence showed Rich had been in contact with Wikileaks before his death. A FoxNews.com story on the case also cited a “federal source” who said the FBI had conducted a forensic analysis of Rich’s computer and discovered thousands of emails with Wikileaks. But a law enforcement official told CNN that the FBI never had possession of Rich’s laptop and did not conduct a forensic analysis of its contents. (CNN, 05.17.17)
  • A group of cybersecurity experts has unearthed ties between American hacker Andrew Auernheimer, who maintains a neo-Nazi website, and an internet campaign to smear Emmanuel Macron days before he was elected president of France. Mounir Mahjoubi, who was in charge of computer security for Macron’s campaign, said far-right groups, or “an international collective of conservatives,” may have coordinated to disrupt the French election. (Wall Street Journal, 05.16.17)
  • British MPs were targeted in a coordinated hacking attempt this year, according to intelligence officials, an attack that has raised concern over foreign meddling in the upcoming election. The attack was politically motivated, a senior security official told the Financial Times, and was likely to have been the work of a state. (Financial Times, 05.17.17)
  • Ukrainian accusations that Moscow was behind cyberattacks on President Petro Poroshenko’s official website are baseless, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said on May 17. (Reuters, 05.17.17)
  • WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange moved closer to freedom May 19 after Swedish prosecutors moved to drop a rape investigation against him, leaving the door open for him to emerge from his self-imposed exile in a London embassy. (Bloomberg, 05.19.17)

Russia’s alleged interference in U.S. elections:

  • U.S. President Donald Trump asked then FBI Director James B. Comey to shut down the federal investigation into Trump’s former national security adviser, Michael Flynn, in an Oval Office meeting in February, according to a memo Comey wrote shortly after the meeting. The documentation of Trump’s request is evidence that the president has tried to directly influence the investigation into links between Trump associates and Russia. (New York Times, 05.16.17)
    • The White House pushed back against the version of events in James Comey’s memo with a statement emailed to reporters saying Trump “has never asked Mr. Comey or anyone else to end any investigation, including any investigation involving General Flynn” and the description in the purported memo “is not a truthful or accurate portrayal of the conversation between the President and Mr. Comey.” “No, no—next question,” Trump said when asked at a White House news conference May 18 whether he pressured Comey in February to drop an investigation into Flynn’s dealings with Russia and Turkey. (Bloomberg, 05.16.17, Bloomberg, 05.18.17)
    • Trump told Russian officials in the Oval Office this month that firing the Comey, had relieved “great pressure” on him, according to a document summarizing the meeting. “I just fired the head of the FBI. He was crazy, a real nut job,” Trump said, according to the document, which was read to The New York Times by an American official. “I faced great pressure because of Russia. That’s taken off.” Trump added, “I’m not under investigation.” (New York Times, 05.19.17)
    • Several U.S. congressional panels are pushing for testimony from fired FBI director James Comey to get to the truth about whether Trump asked him to drop an investigation even as Republicans largely stood by the president. (Bloomberg, 05.17.17)
    • The chairman of the House Oversight Committee, Utah Republican Jason Chaffetz, demands all FBI memos and other records documenting communications between Comey and Trump by May 24. A spokeswoman for House Speaker Paul Ryan said the Wisconsin Republican backed Chaffetz’s demand for documents. (Bloomberg, 05.17.17)
    • Sen. Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut, a member of the Judiciary Committee, called the memo as reported “powerful evidence of obstruction of justice.”  “If there were ever a final nail on the case for an independent prosecutor, this is it,” Blumenthal said at the Capitol. “And there’s more behind it. There are other memos.” (Bloomberg, 05.17.17)
    • Richard Painter, a chief ethics lawyer in the George W. Bush White House, said it would be obstruction of justice for the president to explicitly or implicitly threaten to fire the FBI director if he didn’t drop the investigation of Flynn. However, “if all he does is express his view that it’s an investigation he hopes will end, that in and of itself would not be obstruction of justice,” Painter said. (Wall Street Journal, 05.17.17)
  • The U.S. Justice Department has named former FBI Director Robert Mueller as special counsel to oversee the bureau’s investigation of Russia’s efforts to influence the 2016 election, as well as possible collusion by Trump campaign associates, and to prosecute any federal crimes uncovered. (Bloomberg, 05.17.17)
    • Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein’s letter gave Robert Mueller the authority to look into not only links or coordination between Russia and Trump campaign officials, but also ”any matters that arose or may arise directly from the investigation.” And it included a reference to a Justice Department regulation that permits special counsels to investigate attempts to impede their inquiry—like obstruction of justice and witness intimidation. (AP, 05.18.17, AP, 05.18.17, Bloomberg, 05.17.17, New York Times, 05.17.17)
    • “As I have stated many times, a thorough investigation will confirm what we already know—there was no collusion between my campaign and any foreign entity,” U.S. President Donald Trump said in a brief statement on the appointment of Robert Mueller. “I look forward to this matter concluding quickly.” Trump then also tweeted, however, that it is “the single greatest witch hunt of a politician in American history!” (Bloomberg, 05.17.17, AP, 05.18.17)
    • House Speaker Paul Ryan said the appointment of former FBI Director Robert Mueller as special counsel was consistent with his goal of ensuring that “thorough and independent investigations are allowed to follow the facts wherever they may lead.” (AP, 05.18.17)
  • Michael Flynn and other advisers to Donald Trump’s campaign were in contact with Russian officials and others with Kremlin ties in at least 18 calls and emails during the last seven months of the 2016 presidential race. The previously undisclosed interactions that took place between April and November 2016 form part of the record now being reviewed by FBI and congressional investigators probing Russian interference in the U.S. presidential election and contacts between Trump’s campaign and Russia. Flynn told Trump’s transition team weeks before the inauguration that he was under federal investigation for secretly working as a paid lobbyist for Turkey during the campaign. Flynn has not yet told the Senate intelligence committee how he plans to respond to a subpoena for documents relevant to the former national security adviser’s interactions with Russia. (Reuters, 05.18.17, New York Times, 05.17.17, CNN, 05.18.17)
  • U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson says it is clear that Russia meddled in last year’s presidential election, and that Washington and Moscow will not be able to restart with “a clean slate.” Tillerson also echoed his earlier statements on bilateral ties, saying relations had fallen to “an all-time low point since the end of the Cold War, with a very low level of trust.” He added that this state of relations “is not healthy for the world.” (RFE/RL, 05.15.17)
  • In his May 11 testimony to the Senate, Dan Coats, U.S. President Donald Trump’s director of national intelligence, repeated and endorsed, almost word for word, the Obama administration’s conclusion that ”only Russia’s senior-most officials could have authorized the 2016 U.S. election-focused data thefts and disclosures, based on the scope and sensitivity of the targets.” Mike Pompeo, the director of the Central Intelligence Agency, told the Senate Intelligence Committee that the Russians and others would try to meddle again in future elections and added, ”I hope we learn from it as well and will be able to more effectively defeat it.” (New York Times, 05.11.17)
  • The Justice Department last month requested banking records of Paul Manafort as part of an expansion of probes related to U.S. President Donald Trump’s former campaign associates and whether they colluded with Russia in interfering with the 2016 election, according to people familiar with the matter. (Wall Street Journal, 05.12.17)
  • U.S. President Donald Trump’s lawyers released a two-month-old letter on May 12 stating that 10 years of his tax returns show little income, investments or debt from Russian sources beyond items known to the public. In a separate development, it has transpired that VEB, a Russian state-run bank under scrutiny by U.S. investigators, financed a deal involving Trump’s onetime partner in a Toronto hotel tower at a key moment for the project, according to people familiar with the transaction. (Wall Street Journal, 05.13.17, Wall Street Journal, 05.18.17)
  • The investigation into possible coordination between Russia and the Trump campaign has identified a current White House official as a significant person of interest, showing that the probe is reaching into the highest levels of government, according to people familiar with the matter. The senior White House adviser under scrutiny by investigators is someone close to the president, according to these people, who would not further identify the official. (The Washington Post, 05.19.17)
  • House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) said in June 2016 that he thought Russian President Vladimir Putin had paid then-GOP presidential candidate Donald Trump. And it seems entirely possible—if not likely—that he was joking. “I’ll guarantee you that’s what it is. … The Russians hacked the DNC and got the opp [opposition] research that they had on Trump,” McCarthy said with a laugh at the time. (The Washington Post, 05.18.17)
  • In May 2016, a Russian military intelligence officer bragged to a colleague that his organization, known as the GRU, was getting ready to pay Hillary Clinton back for what Russian President Vladimir Putin believed was an influence operation she had run against him five years earlier as Secretary of State. The GRU, he said, was going to cause chaos in the upcoming U.S. election. What the officer didn’t know, senior intelligence officials tell TIME, was that U.S. spies were listening. (TIME, 05.18.17)
  • The FBI warned Republican congressman Dana Rohrabacher of California in 2012 that Russian spies were trying to recruit him, officials said, an example of how aggressively Russian agents have tried to influence Washington politics. Rohrabacher said he appreciated the warning but needed no reminder. Rohrabacher, like Trump, has played down the significance of Russian meddling. “Did they try to influence our election? We have tried to influence their elections, and everybody’s elections,” Rohrabacher told The Los Angeles Times in March. (New York Times, 05.19.17)
  • A May 10-14 Reuters/Ipsos poll revealed that 59% of American adults, including 41% of Republicans and 79% of Democrats, agreed that “Congress should launch an independent investigation into communications between the Russian government and the Trump campaign during the 2016 election.” (Reuters, 05.16.17)

Energy exports from CIS:

  • Brent crude was up 63 cents at $53.14 on May 19, after climbing to $53.20, its highest since April 21. U.S. benchmark crude oil was up 61 cents at $49.96 a barrel. Saudi Arabia and non-OPEC Russia have said they want an extension to output reductions of almost 1.8 million barrels per day (bpd) that were initially agreed to run in the first half of 2017. There are areas in the enormous Permian and Eagle Ford shale fields in Texas where producers can break even at prices as low as $34 a barrel, according to Bloomberg Intelligence. (Bloomberg, 05.19.17, Reuters, 05.19.17)
  • Russian President Vladimir Putin said on May 15 that extending oil output cuts for a further nine months was the right thing to do to ensure stable oil prices. Saudi Arabia and Russia, the world’s two top oil producers, agreed on May 15 on the need to extend the cuts for a further nine months until March 2018 to rein in a global crude glut. (Reuters, 05.15.17)

Bilateral economic ties:

  • No significant developments.

Other bilateral issues:

  • The Russian State Duma on May 18 approved the nomination of former Deputy Defense Minister Anatoly Antonov as Moscow’s next ambassador to Washington. He will succeed Sergey Kislyak. “Russia and the United States are simply doomed to positive cooperation,” Antonov said following his confirmation. “We have to fight the chief evil—international terrorism—together,” he said. (The Moscow Times, 05.18.17)
  • The United Russia ruling party presented a report on May 19 about U.S. media’s alleged attempt to influence Russia’s domestic affairs, including the 2016 State Duma elections. According to Leonid Levin, chair of the State Duma’s committee on information technologies who presented the report to lawmakers, there is a “large-scale system the U.S. [uses] to influence domestic politics in Russia,” and media outlets like Voice of America, Radio Svoboda and the CNN TV channel are part of it. (The Moscow Times, 05.19.17)
  • A top Kremlin foreign-policy adviser has threatened retaliatory measures against U.S. officials in response to Washington’s closure of Russian diplomatic property in the United States last year. (RFE/RL, 05.12.17)
  • Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, during a trip to Alaska, has visited a monument to a crucial World War II program under which the United States aided the Soviet Union and other Allies. (RFE/RL, 05.12.17)
  • The Russian-owned Prevezon group of companies has agreed to pay nearly $6 million to settle U.S. civil allegations that the firms laundered proceeds of a $230 million tax fraud, ending a politically charged case days before it was set to go to trial. (Reuters, 05.13.17)
  • Aluminum magnate Oleg Deripaska claimed in a federal defamation and libel lawsuit that the AP’s March 22 story about his business dealings with Paul Manafort was inaccurate and hurt his career by falsely accusing him of criminal activity. (AP, 05.15.17)
  • The Kremlin is growing increasingly unhappy at being in the center of U.S. political storms. Officials in Moscow are fretting that U.S. President Donald Trump will be so engulfed by political crises at home that he’ll have no chance to form a normal working relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin, according to one senior Kremlin official and two other people familiar with the matter. All asked not to be identified discussing internal issues. (Bloomberg, 05.18.17)

II. Russia’s domestic news

Politics, economy and energy:

  • Russia’s economy remained near stagnation for a second quarter after exiting its longest recession this century. Gross domestic product rose 0.5% from a year earlier in January-March after an increase of 0.3% in the previous three months, the Federal Statistics Service said. (Bloomberg, 05.17.17)
  • The International Monetary Fund improved its forecast for Russia’s economic growth this year to 4%, saying easier financial conditions and higher oil prices would help drive a recovery, a regular IMF report showed on May 19. (Reuters, 05.19.17)
  • Russian President Vladimir Putin said on May 15 that authorities plan no “artificial measures” to control the rouble exchange rate. (Reuters, 05.15.17)
  • Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a decree on approving the country’s economic security strategy until 2030. (TASS, 05.16.17)
  • Russian President Vladimir Putin said on May 15 it was still too early to say if he will seek reelection in 2018. (Reuters, 05.15.17)
  • Kremlin plans to boost voter turnout in the country’s regional elections have been scrapped over fears that opposition candidates could be pushed into victory. (The Moscow Times, 05.18.17)
  • Russian billionaire Alisher Usmanov on May 18 launched a video attack on opposition leader Alexei Navalny, shortly before the trial in the Usmanov vs. Navalny defamation case was to begin. (AP, 05.18.17)
  • More than 8,000 people marched in the streets of Moscow on May 14 to protest the demolition of the capital’s four and five-story residential buildings. (The Moscow Times, 05.15.17)
  • Protecting human rights should not create a threat to state sovereignty, undermine “the moral standards of the society” or “disrupt its religious identity,” Valery Zorkin, chief justice of Russia’s Constitutional Court, said May 18 at the St. Petersburg International Law Forum. (The Moscow Times, 05.19.17)
  • The number of people living in Russia with HIV rose by more than 5% last year, new data has revealed. (The Moscow Times, 05.16.17)
  • The former wife of Russian President Vladimir Putin helped create and now supports a foundation that owns a historic Moscow property generating millions of dollars from tenants, a Reuters examination of property records has found. (Reuters, 05.19.17)

Defense and aerospace:

  • Russian President Vladimir Putin has called for a major rearmament of the nation’s military forces, citing recent experience gained in counter-terrorist operations in Syria as well as the need for the stronger protection of Russia’s Arctic borders. The share of modern mobile and silo-based Yars missile systems in the Russian Strategic Rocket Forces should reach 72% by the end of 2017, Putin said. The share of modern weapons in service with the army and the airborne troops by the end of 2017 should reach 42% and 58% respectively, Putin said at a meeting on forming a new state armament program for 2018-2025. (TASS, 05.17.17, Rossiiskaya Gazeta, 05.17.17,Interfax, 05.18.17)
  • The Sarmat state-of-the-art missile system will enter service by 2020, Vladimir Nesterov, the Russian Strategic Missile Forces’ military education head, said. (Interfax, 05.15.17)
  • At the end of May, ships from the Russian navy’s Mediterranean squadron will conduct drills near the Libyan coast. Experts say that this is being done to promote the Kalibr and X-35 cruise missiles in the North African countries. (RBTH, 05.19.17)
  • All missions planned under the Russian lunar program will be launched from the Vostochny spaceport in the Amur Region in the Russian Far East. (TASS, 05.17.17)

Security, law-enforcement and justice:

  • A court in Moscow has sentenced a man who took part in an antigovernment protest on March 26 to eight months in a so-called colony settlement for attacking a police officer. (RFE/RL, 05.19.17)

III. Foreign affairs, trade and investment

Russia’s general foreign policy and relations with “far abroad” countries:

  • North Korea launched a ballistic missile from the northwestern part of the country early on May 14, the South Korean Joints Chief of Staff said. The U.S. calculated that the missile landed in water 60 miles south of Russia’s Vladivostok region. (CNN, 05.14.17)
    • The U.N. Security Council has unanimously condemned North Korea’s latest missile test and warned of new sanctions.  (BBC, 05.16.17)
    • Russian President Vladimir Putin said on May 15 that Moscow was opposed to any new countries acquiring nuclear weapons, but that the world should talk to North Korea rather than threaten it. Putin also warned that “nothing good” could come from North Korea’s latest missile test and said Russia remained “categorically opposed to any expansion of the club of nuclear powers, including in the case of the Korean peninsula.” A new ferry between isolated North Korea and Russia docked for the first time at the Pacific port of Vladivostok on May 18. (Reuters, 05.18.17, Reuters, 05.15.17, Bloomberg, 05.15.17)
    • U.S. President Donald Trump “cannot imagine Russia is pleased” with North Korea’s latest missile test on May 14, as it landed closer to Russia than to Japan, the White House said in a statement. (Reuters, 05.13.17)
    • U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley said the launch was “getting close to home” for Russia, adding that it was not a way for North Korean leader Kim Jong Un to earn a meeting with U.S. President Donald Trump. (Reuters, 05.15.17)
  • Russian President Vladimir Putin and France’s new President Emmanuel Macron held their first phone conversation and discussed possible further cooperation in resolving the Ukraine crisis, the Kremlin said in a statement on May 18. In recent weeks, Macron has talked of the “neoconservative tendencies” of previous governments that led to failed French interventions. He says he wants France to be “a power of equilibrium,” which sounds like diminished Western alignment. “You’ll see a bit of complaisance in me on Russia,” Macron acknowledges, although he adds that he doesn’t share Putin’s “values.” (Reuters, 05.18.17, Wall Street Journal, 05.15.17)
  • Sixty percent of French voters favored pro-Kremlin candidates in the first round of the presidential election, according to American journalist Christian Caryl. (The Washington Post, 05.12.17)
  • The party of Chancellor Angela Merkel scored an upset win on May 14 in elections in Germany’s most populous state of North Rhine-Westphalia that were seen as a dress rehearsal for national parliamentary elections in September, where she will seek a fourth term. (New York Times, 05.14.17)
  • There is a “realistic possibility” Russia might try to interfere in Britain’s national election next month, according to Boris Johnson, Britain’s foreign secretary. (Reuters, 05.13.17)
  • The Canadian government will back legislation allowing the country to impose sanctions on human rights abusers in foreign countries. Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland announced May 17 the government would back the proposed Canadian law that is named for late Russian lawyer Sergei Magnitsky. (Bloomberg, 05.18.17)
  • Hoyt Brian Yee, U.S. deputy assistant secretary for Europe and Eurasia, has warned that Russia is deepening efforts to influence Balkans politics, including encouraging the Serb-dominated part of Bosnia-Herzegovina to secede. (RFE/RL, 05.18.17)
  • Lithuania’s foreign minister says the Baltic nation has given refuge to two gay men from Chechnya following reports of a campaign of torture and abuse against homosexuals in the southern Russian region. (RFE/RL, 05.17.17)
  • Nicaragua is denying that a recently activated land-based satellite station donated by Russia has the purpose of spying on the region or the United States. (AP, 05.18.17)

China:

  • Chinese President Xi Jinping opened the inaugural summit dedicated to his cornerstone diplomatic initiative for the One Belt One Road on May 14 by pledging 540 billion yuan ($78 billion) in financing, including 100 billion yuan for China’s Silk Road Fund, 380 billion yuan in new lending for participating nations, and 60 billion yuan in coming years to developing countries and international organizations that join the program. On May 15, Xi pledged an additional $124 billion for the initiative. Xi wrapped up the two-day summit with an invitation to world leaders attending the gathering to re-convene in 2019. The Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs released a list of 270 results, including two-way agreements with countries ranging from Switzerland to Afghanistan. (Bloomberg, 05.15.17, Bloomberg, 05.15.17, RFE/RL, 05.15.17)
    • Russian President Vladimir Putin has publicly pledged his support for China’s attempt to revive the ancient Silk Road. Speaking in Beijing on May 15, Putin said the project was “highly in-demand” adding that Russia would be an active partner in the project. Twenty-nine heads of state took part in the Belt and Road international cooperation forum in Beijing on May 14-15. Putin also said political uncertainties in the U.S. and the European Union are weighing on the global economy, while initiatives advanced by China and Russia aim to strengthen stability. China’s Belt and Road Initiative to stimulate trade links provides “very much needed signals that would give hope for some stability,” as does Russia’s support for extending an accord with OPEC to limit oil output for a further nine months, Putin said. (The Moscow Times, 05.15.17,Bloomberg, 05.15.17)
    • Xi on May 15 responded to Putin’s suggestion when he said Beijing would work with other regional groupings such as Asean, Apec, the EU and the EEU. “We need to seek greater complementarity [between Belt and Road and other regional plans],” he said. “In doing so we will make the whole greater than the sum of its parts.” (Financial Times, 05.15.17)
    • A detailed discussion about the economic content of Sino-Russian cooperation was postponed until Chinese President Xi Jinping’s upcoming visit to Moscow in July. In 201,5 Russia and China signed the agreement on cooperation between the Eurasian Economic Union and the Belt Road Initiative. The biggest outcome of the agreement was the start of the talks on the free trade zone between the EEU and China, which according to different estimates, might last from 10 to 20 years. (RBTH, 05.16.17)
    • “The most unpleasant issue for us is that China is becoming a serious center for integrational processes in Eurasia, which it never was in the past,” said Vladimir Portyakov, deputy director of the Institute of Far Eastern Studies at the Russian Academy of Sciences. “Instead of linking up the Eurasian Economic Union and the Belt and Road, we may end up with the EEU being subordinated to this Chinese scheme.” (Financial Times, 05.15.17)
  • Oil exports from Russia to China are 17 times higher than they were 15 years ago, and now account for almost a quarter of Russia’s exports. (Oilprice, 05.17.17)
  • China accounted for 70% of cargo transit volume on Russian railways last year. (Financial Times, 05.14.17)
  • Gazprom hopes in 2017 to agree the main terms of natural gas exports to China from the Russian Far East, the CEO of Russia’s state gas giant Alexei Miller said on May 14. (Reuters, 05.14.17)

Ukraine:

  • EU foreign ministers have backed maintaining sanctions against Russia following a major Brussels summit, according to the Polish foreign minister. The sanctions, which were first imposed in 2014, come up for renewal every six months and were last extended by the European Council in December, meaning EU leaders must decide at their June summit whether to maintain the measures and, if so, for how long. (Express.co.uk, 05.15.17, Politico, 05.12.17)
  • Representatives of the European Parliament and the European Council have signed a document in Strasbourg formalizing a long-awaited visa-liberalization deal with Ukraine. EU member states gave their approval on May 11, and the visa-free regime is due to enter into force on June 11. Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko said the visa-liberalization deal with the European Union marks his country’s “divorce from the Russian Empire.” (RFE/RL, 05.12.17, RFE/RL, 05.17.17)
  • U.S. President Donald Trump posted photos of his separate meetings with the top diplomats of Ukraine and Russia on Twitter and urged the two nations to “make peace.” Trump held a rare, unannounced Oval Office meeting with Ukrainian Foreign Minister Pavlo Klimkin after a meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, who earlier on May 10 met with U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson at the State Department. (RFE/RL, 05.12.17)
  • Ukraine’s government is pushing the Trump administration to take a direct role in peace talks over eastern Ukraine, the country’s foreign minister said May 15, including possible three-way talks with Moscow and Kiev on ending the violence. Ukrainian Foreign Minister Pavlo Klimkin said he had discussed the ideas in Washington meetings last week with U.S. President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence. (Wall Street Journal, 05.15.17)
  • The Ukrainian military said on May 12 that two of its servicemen were killed and six wounded in the previous 24 hours. On May 13 authorities in Ukraine reported that four civilians were killed when Russia-backed separatists fired into a residential area of the town of Avdiyivka. Six Ukrainian servicemen have been wounded in the security operation (ATO) zone in Donbas over the preceding 24 hours, the ATO press center headquarters said on May 15. On May 16, the ATO press center said two more Ukrainian servicemen were wounded. One serviceman of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic was wounded in shelling conducted from the positions of the Ukrainian army, a spokesman for the DPR’s operations command, said on May 14. (BBC, 05.15.17, BBC, 05.16.17, TASS, 05.14.17, RFE/RL, 05.13.17, RFE/RL, 05.12.17)
  • Ukraine will block several top Russian websites, including VKontakte and Odnoklassniki, social networks with broad popularity across the former Soviet Union. On May 15, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko signed an order imposing new sanctions on Russia for three years. The ban, based on recommendations of the National Security and Defense Council put forth in April and issued on May 16 by presidential decree, immediately triggered a wave of criticism from human rights groups and journalists who claimed it was undemocratic. It will take about two years and $1 billion to block all Russian websites in Ukraine, said Alexander Fediyenko, the board chairman of the Internet Association of Ukraine. (TASS, 05.17.17, RFE/RL, 05.17.17, The Moscow Times, 05.16.17)
  • Energoatom President Yury Nedashkovsky has confirmed progress in Holtec International’s preparations to build a Central Spent Fuel Storage Facility (CSFSF) at the site of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in Ukraine. The facility will mean Ukraine will no longer have to spend $200 million each year on its arrangement with Russia to transport and reprocess used nuclear fuel. (World Nuclear News, 05.17.17)
  • Among the moves that then-Ukraine’s central bank Chief Valeriya Gontareva oversaw were deals offering PrivatBank central bank refinancing to strengthen the lender’s balance sheet. But at least $1.8 billion of that money quickly vanished into bad loans, according to the Anti-Corruption Action Center. The bailout of PrivatBank, which was once owned by pro-government oligarch Ihor V. Kolomoisky, has cost the Ukrainian government more than the total IMF budget aid it has received since the 2014 revolution. (New York Times, 05.12.17)
  • Ukraine is commemorating the victims of Soviet dictator Josef Stalin’s mass deportation of Tatars from Crimea in 1944. (RFE/RL, 05.18.17)
  • Ukrainian police investigating the car-bomb killing of Belarus-born journalist Pavel Sheremet are sifting through a new documentary film’s claims about the unsolved case, including that a current or former Ukrainian security agent was present when the explosive was planted. (RFE/RL, 05.11.17)
  • Assailants attacked gay and transgender rights activists and torched a rainbow flag at a small rally in the Ukrainian city of Kharkiv. (RFE/RL, 05.18.17)

Russia’s other post-Soviet neighbors:

  • International mediators brokering a peaceful solution to the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict have condemned recent ceasefire violations in the region. “According to information collected from multiple reliable sources, on May 15, Azerbaijani armed forces fired a missile across the Line of Contact, striking military equipment. On the evening of May 16 and continuing into May 17, Armenian armed forces retaliated with mortar fire of various calibers. These actions by both sides represent significant violations of the ceasefire and are cause for alarm,” the co-chairs of the OSCE Minsk Group, Ambassadors Igor Popov of Russia, Stephane Visconti of France and Richard Hoagland of the United States said. (RFE/RL, 05.18.17)
  • A court in Azerbaijan has ordered human rights activists Leyla and Arif Yunus to be returned to the country by force from the Netherlands to participate in new hearings in their politically charged case. (RFE/RL, 05.17.17)
  • Azerbaijani officials and legislators on May 16 decried a decision by Russia’s Supreme Court to shut down a group representing more than 2 million Azerbaijanis living in Russia. (RFE/RL, 05.17.17)
  • A Russian soldier convicted of murdering a family of seven in the Armenian city of Gyumri in 2015 has been sent to Russia to serve out his life sentence, the Armenian Justice Ministry says. (RFE/RL, 05.19.17)
  • Armenia’s Republican Party, which won last month’s parliamentary elections, has proposed former Health Minister Ara Babloyan for the position of parliament speaker. (RFE/RL, 05.17.17)
  • European lawmakers have delayed the disbursement of financial assistance to Moldova after several political groups in the chamber voiced concerns about the political situation in the country. (RFE/RL, 05.16.17)
  • Moldova’s pro-Russian president, Igor Dodon, has accused the European Union of providing “geopolitical assistance” to his country in order to keep a series of pro-EU governments in power in Chisinau. (RFE/RL, 05.18.17)
  • Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoyev is making his second visit to neighboring Turkmenistan in less than three months. (RFE/RL, 05.19.17)

IV. Quoteworthy

  • “Russia is not a country that is afraid of anything, and certainly, China’s actions are not aimed at any kind of absorption. We take decisions together, and we do not take decisions that are harmful to us,” Russian President Vladimir Putin said at a press conference as part of the Belt and Road international economic forum in Beijing. (TASS, 05.15.17)
  • “I wouldn’t put much credibility onto whatever Putin’s notes are,” Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) said on “Fox & Friends.” He added a zinger: “And if it comes in an email, I wouldn’t click on the attachment, that’s for sure.” (AP, 05.17.17)
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