Tuesday, May 14, 2019

Russia in Review: May 9 - 13, 2019

Russia in Review is a weekly intelligence summary (INTSUM) produced by the Institute for the Study of War (ISW). This ISW INTSUM series sheds light on key trends and developments related to the Russian government’s objectives and its efforts to secure them. Receive future Russia in Review INTSUM products via-email by signing up for the ISW mailing list.

Reporting Period: May 9 - 13, 2019 (read the previous Russia in Review here)

Authors: Mason Clark and Nataliya Bugayova

Key Takeaway: The Kremlin is pressing an aggressive campaign to integrate Belarus with Russia despite some resistance from Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko. The Kremlin has also boosted its campaign to extend citizenship to Ukrainians and thereby expand its leverage over Ukraine, revitalize its declining population in Russia, and establish a broader principle for other Russian-speaking populations in the former Soviet Union and beyond.

The Kremlin is pressing an aggressive campaign to integrate Belarus with Russia despite resistance from Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko. The Kremlin intensified its efforts to bind Belarus to Russia in 2018.[1] The Kremlin dispatched Russian Ambassador to Belarus Mikhail Babich - a close ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin - in August 2018. Babich used his tenure to push for the accelerated implementation of the 1996 Union Treaty, which calls for a federation-type state that ensures the long-term allegiance of Belarus to Russia.[2] He lobbied business leaders and opposition politicians in Belarus to build ties with Russia.[3] He threatened to condition economic benefits from Russia upon demonstrated progress towards the Union State.[4] He even went so far as to correct statements by Lukashenko.[5] The Belarusian Foreign Ministry accused Babich of “failing to understand the difference” between an “independent government” and a “federal subject” of Russia.[6] The Kremlin supported these calls by exerting additional forms of economic pressure (such as suspended gas subsidies and bans on certain fruit imports) on Belarus.[7] The Kremlin also successfully secured an implementation roadmap for the Union Treaty in December 2018 after a series of high-level bilateral talks.

Lukashenko has attempted to withstand these threats from the Kremlin. He has become increasingly vocal over the past year against encroachment on the sovereignty of Belarus by Russia. He has called on domestic businesses to find alternative markets other than Russia. He also successfully pushed Putin to recall Babich on April 30.[8] Lukashenko may ultimately seek to disperse power across the political structures of Belarus to increase their long-term resilience to the Kremlin. He has stated his intent to revise the Belarusian Constitution to “give authority to other structures and branches of power” outside of his Office of the President.[9] The Kremlin will nonetheless sustain its campaign despite these acts of resistance. Putin replaced Babich with Dmitry Mezentsev - a close associate and the former Chairman of the Russian Federation Council Committee on Economic Policy.[10] Mezentsev will likely soften his rhetoric to avoid further alienation in Belarus but he almost certainly intends to pursue the same objectives as Babich.

The Kremlin has a strategic interest in consolidating control over Belarus and ensuring the long-term alignment of its government and its people with Russia. Putin likely fears the development of a ‘color revolution’ or other political movement to integrate Belarus with the West after Lukashenko. The Kremlin also intends to expand its military basing in Belarus to expand its threat to the borders of Ukraine and NATO. Putin could even view leadership of the Union State as a viable means to remain in power after the end of his latest term as Russian President in 2024.

The Kremlin further extended its offer of citizenship and residency status to Ukrainians in order to expand the Kremlin’s influence over Ukraine. The Kremlin proposed a bill to simplify residence permits and eliminate residency term limits for Ukrainians in Russia on May 7.[11] This measure is only the most recent step in a new campaign by the Kremlin. Putin originally signed a decree streamlining the citizenship application process for Ukrainians living in the occupied Donetsk and Luhansk Oblasts of Eastern Ukraine on April 24. The Kremlin opened centers to distribute passports the Donbas on April 29 - 30.[12] Putin later extended the offer to all Ukrainians without dual citizenship and former residents of the occupied Crimean Peninsula on May 1.[13] Putin claimed that the Kremlin would consider extending these benefits to all Ukrainians. The Government of Ukraine condemned the issuance of passports in Eastern Ukraine and Crimea on May 8 and announced preparations for a new list of sanctions targeting Russia.[14]

This campaign to grant benefits to broad swathes of Ukrainians supports the demographic objectives of the Kremlin. Russia likely seeks to attract Ukrainians to revitalize its aging workforce and help reverse its severe demographic crisis.[15] The Kremlin has been actively refining its migration policy to simplify residency and citizenships requirements for Russian-speaking populations since 2018.[16] The Russian Center for Strategic Research developed a migration strategy calling for expanded migration to achieve a required annual population growth of 250,000 to 500,000 in 2017.[17] The Kremlin might be also attempting to redirect the labor flow of Ukrainians from the West towards Russia. Putin could ultimately intend to extend similar benefits throughout the former Soviet Union including Belarus, Kazakhstan, and the Baltics.

This campaign also strengthens the Kremlin’s leverage over Ukraine. The Kremlin continues to deny its direct military intervention in Ukraine and instead frames its actions as support to the local Russian-speaking population of Eastern Ukraine. The Kremlin could use the need to protect large numbers of new Russian citizens to justify open military action in Eastern Ukraine in the future. The Kremlin is also positioning to secure further advantage ahead of possible negotiations with newly elected Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky about the future of Eastern Ukraine. Zelensky condemned the recent citizenship offers but remains open to talks on the Donbas. The Kremlin may have chosen to act now in order to take advantage of the lame-duck period between Zelensky and outgoing Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko. The timing limits the possible responses available to Poroshenko and places less direct pressure on Zelensky, allowing the Kremlin to preserve the opportunity of favorable long-term negotiations with the Government of Ukraine.

What to Watch

Russia and China continue to increase their economic cooperation in the Arctic. Putin announced that Russia and China are considering connecting Russia’s Northern Sea Route to China’s Maritime Silk Road on April 27. U.S. Secretary of State Pompeo expressed concern regarding this potential outcome on May 6. Russian Novatek also signed a deal to sell a twenty percent stake in its second gas liquefaction project in the Arctic to Chinese CNODC at the One Belt One Road Forum on April 26.[18] The Central Bank of Russia has grown the share of its yuan foreign currency reserves from 2.8% to 14.2% since 2018.[19] ISW has previously assessed that cooperation between China and Russia may limit the future freedom of movement of the U.S. in the Arctic.

The Kremlin is laying the groundwork for a multilateral Russia-Africa Summit in Sochi in October 2019. Russian Special Presidential Representative for the Middle East and Africa Mikhail Bogdanov and other officials from the Russian Foreign Ministry met with counterparts from Egypt on May 7 to discuss an inaugural Russia-Africa Summit in Sochi in October 2019.[20] The Kremlin intends to boost its ongoing campaign to expand its political and economic influence throughout Africa. The Kremlin’s talks also support its campaign to court Egypt from the U.S. and NATO.

[1] [“Alexander Lukashenko Spoke Between the Lines: What Does the President of Belarus Fear More Than Gas Prices,”] Kommersant, December 15, 2018, https://www.kommersant(.)ru/doc/3833073.
[2] [“Working Meeting With Mikhail Babich,”] Kremlin, August 24, 2018, http://kremlin(.)ru/catalog/persons/281/events/58363.
[3] Dennis Lavnikevich, [“Lukashenko Against Putin,”] New Times, May 6, 2019, https://newtimes(.)ru/articles/detail/180157.
[4] [“Russian Ambassador Urged Minsk to Decide on Integration Format,”] Ria Novosti, March 14, 2019, https://ria(.)ru/20190314/1551788602.html; [“Political Returnee: Russian Ambassador to Belarus, Mikhail Babich, Completes Work in Minsk,”] Kommersant, April 30, 2019, https://www.kommersant(.)ru/doc/3961164; “Russian Government Recalls Ambassador to Belarus After Minsk Officials Complained He Treated the Country Like a ‘Federal Subject’,” Meduza, May 2, 2019, https://meduza(.)io/en/feature/2019/05/02/russian-government-recalls-ambassador-to-belarus-after-misnk-officials-complained-he-treated-the-country-like-a-federal-subject; Dennis Lavnikevich, [“Lukashenko Against Putin,”] New Times, May 6, 2019, https://newtimes(.)ru/articles/detail/180157.
[5] [“Russian Ambassador Commented on Lukashenko’s Statement on the Real Cost of the Ostrovets Power Plant,”] TASS, April 19, 2019, https://tass(.)ru/ekonomika/6354766.
[6] Olga Hryniuk, “A Major Diplomatic Row Between Minsk and Moscow Explained,” Belarus Digest, March 22 2019, https://belarusdigest(.)com/story/a-major-diplomatic-row-between-minsk-and-moscow-explained/.
[7] [“Rosselkhoznador’s Statement on its Reasons for Imposing Restrictions on the Supply of Apples and Pears from Belaurs to Russia,”] Rosselkhoznadzor, April 11, 2019, http://fsvps(.)ru/fsvps/news/29996.html.
[8] [“Dmitry Mezentsev Appointed Ambassador of Russia to Belarus,”] Kremlin, April 30, 2019, http://kremlin(.)ru/acts/news/60428.
[9] “Lukashenko Offers to Hold Belarusian Parliamentary Election in 2019,” TASS, April 19, 2019, http://tass(.)com/world/1054649; “Belarusian Leader Speaks in Support of Updated Constitution,” TASS, April 19, 2019, http://tass(.)com/world/1054647.
[10] [“Dmitry Mezentsev Appointed Ambassador of Russia to Belarus,”] Kremlin, April 30, 2019, http://kremlin(.)ru/acts/news/60428.
[11] [“The Government Will Consider the Possibility of Introducing a Perpetual Residence Permit,”] Interfax, May 7, 2019, https://www.interfax(.)ru/russia/660374.
[12] [“Decree on the Definition for Humanitarian Purposes of Categories of Persons Entitled to Apply for Admission to Russian Citizenship in a Simplified Manner,”] Kremlin, April 24, 2019, http://kremlin(.)ru/acts/news/60358; “Kremlin Mulling Easier Rules for Granting Temporary Residence to Ukrainians in Russia,” Unian, May 7, 2019, https://www.unian(.)info/politics/10541448-kremlin-mulling-easier-rules-for-granting-temporary-residence-to-ukrainians-in-russia.html.
[13] [“A Decree Was Signed on Certain Categories of Foreign Citizens and Stateless Persons Who Have the Right to Apply for Admission to the Citizenship of the Russian Federation Under a Simplified Procedure,”] Kremlin, May 1, 2019, http://kremlin(.)ru/events/president/news/60429.
[14] “Ukraine’s Cabinet Outlaws Russian Passports Issued in Occupied Donbas,” Unian, May 8, 2019, https://www.unian(.)info/politics/10542972-ukraine-s-cabinet-outlaws-russian-passports-issued-in-occupied-donbas.html.
[15] “Russia’s Population Declines in 2018 for First Time in a Decade,” Moscow Times, December 21, 2018, https://www.themoscowtimes(.)com/2018/12/21/russias-population-declines-2018-first-time-in-decade-a63926.
[16] [“The List of Do Outs following the Direct Line with Vladimir Putin,”] Kremlin, June 26, 2018, http://kremlin(.)ru/acts/assignments/orders/57847; [“Putin ordered the simplification of the process for foreigners to receive temporary residence permits and residence permits,”] Fergana, June 26, 2018, https://www.fergananews(.)com/news/30783.
[17] Irina Ivakhnyuk, “Proposals for Russia’s Migration Strategy Through 2035,” Russian International Affairs Council, September 26, 2017, https://russiancouncil(.)ru/en/activity/publications/proposals-for-russia-s-migration-strategy-through-2035/.
[18] “NOVATEK and CNODC Sign Entrance Agreement to Arctic LNG 2,” Novatek, April 25, 2019, http://www.novatek(.)ru/en/press/releases/index.php?id_4=3173.
[19] Irina Malkova, [“The Central Bank Transferred its Assets from the United States to China and Halved its Share of Assets in Dollars,”] The Bell, May 8, 2019, https://thebell(.)io/tsb-perevel-svoi-aktivy-iz-ssha-v-kitaj-i-vdvoe-snizil-dolyu-aktivov-v-dollarah/.
[20] [“On the Consultations of the Special Representative of the President of the Russian Federation on the Middle East and Africa, Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs of Russia Mikhail Bogdanov with Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs, Director of the Department of African Organizations and Associations of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Egypt H. Amara,”] Russian Foreign Ministry, May 7, 2019, http://www.mid(.)ru/ru/foreign_policy/news/-/asset_publisher/cKNonkJE02Bw/content/id/3638250.