Russia Reform Monitor No. 2401

Related Categories: Democracy and Governance; Europe Military; Human Rights and Humanitarian Issues; International Economics and Trade; Warfare; Corruption; Global Health; CAMCA; Russia; Caucasus; Ukraine

Over a hundred people were arrested at a mid-July protest in central Moscow over the recent referendum, which cleared the way for President Vladimir Putin to remain in power until 2036. The demonstrators were rallying against the power grab, while also expressing their discontent on issues they view Putin to be responsible for – poor economic health, the ill-treatment of homosexuals in the country, and thievery among the elite. The arrests were made on a legal technicality, since - due to restrictions implemented as a result of the coronavirus pandemic - mass gatherings have been officially restricted. (Reuters, July 15, 2020)

An international consortium of of security and intelligence agencies - including the UK's National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC), the Canadian Communication Security Establishment (CSE), the U.S. Department for Homeland Security's Cyber-security Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) and the U.S. National Security Agency (NSA) - has warned publicly that Russian hackers are targeting organizations in the UK, U.S. and Canada that are trying to develop a vaccine for the coronavirus. The NCSC said the hackers "almost certainly" operated as "part of Russian intelligence services." It did not specify which organizations had been targeted, or whether any information had been stolen.

The hackers are said to be part of a group known as "the Dukes," or "Cozy Bear.” The consortium's warning said that the hackers exploited software flaws to get access to vulnerable computer systems and used malware called WellMess and WellMail to upload and download files from infected machines. They also reportedly tricked individuals into handing over login credentials with spear-phishing attacks. (BBC, July 16, 2020)

A police major, Yekaterina Mishkinain, has fallen to her death under suspicious circumstances in Khabarovsk after testifying against her boss. Unconfirmed reports citing anonymous sources in the region's law enforcement agencies say Mishkina was a witness in a criminal case against her former boss, who is suspected of extorting his subordinates. Officials found a note in Mishkina's purse listing a set of key tasks she had to complete "until a certain point," indicating that what happened wasn't spontaneous. Mishkina's death follows at least five incidents of Russian healthcare workers falling from windows at the height of the coronavirus outbreak this spring, as well as two young journalists meeting the same fate in 2018-19. The Khabarovsk regional police have launched an internal investigation into Mishkina's death. (The Moscow Times, July 16, 2020)

150,000 Russian troops will soon embark on a training exercise in the country's southwest geared toward defending Russia's borders with Ukraine, the Southern Caucasus, and the Black and Caspian Seas. At the soldiers' disposal will be over 400 aircraft and 100 naval vessels for maritime and aerial maneuvers. In response, Ukrainian authorities have announced their own upcoming military exercises, set to take place in the south of the country and coincide with the Russian display. Kyiv is planning to include anti-aircraft training as part of its iteration of the drills, in which officials hope invited NATO members will choose to participate. (The Defense Post, July 17, 2020; Reuters, July 17, 2020)

Russia has said that it is prepared to mediate peace talks between Armenia and Azerbaijan after fighting escalated along the shared border between the two South Caucasus countries. The two longtime rivals have been locked for decades in a conflict over the region of Nagorno-Karabakh, which was seized from Azerbaijan by ethnic Armenian separatists in a 1990s war that claimed some 30,000 lives. The most recent flare-up in fighting began in mid-July, with each side accusing the other of commencing the shelling that has continued sporadically for several days and so far claimed some 17 lives.

According to Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov, President Putin and members of Russia's Security Council expressed "extreme concern" over the rising tensions and "emphasized an urgent need for the parties to adhere to a ceasefire, and voiced a readiness to mediate efforts." Negotiations mediated by Russia, the United States, and France since 1994 have failed to bring about a lasting resolution to the stalemate. (The Moscow Times, July 17, 2020)