- Print This Post Print This Post

by John Helmer, Moscow 
  @bears_with

In a plan Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin initiated two years ago called “Smart City 2030”, the Russian capital has attempted to catch up with China’s cities and to London in the mobilization of electronic and digital tools for following the city’s inhabitants, enforcing the laws, and catching criminals, tax cheats, speeders —  and political protesters.

Most of these tools can be spotted fixed to lamp posts and other street furniture; some are on board drones flying in the air; some are underground at metro stations and on subway trains. Invisible is the surveillance of telephone calls and messages; social media; and internet communication.  

On the hardware and software, the equivalent of about a billion US dollars has been spent every year for the past five years by the Moscow government’s Department of Information Technology. That doesn’t count parallel spending by the municipal and federal agencies in charge of physical and financial security and public health, and by commercial organisations engaged in transportation, marketing, telecommunications, and banking.   

The introduction of the corona virus quarantine measures has accelerated the spending — and the sensitivity of most Muscovites to their privacy, and their suspicion of government officials’   motives. There have been many press reports in the city detailing the extent of the visual, audio, internet and other surveillance measures which have been installed or are planned. Opposition is growing – and if expressed in public gatherings, carefully recorded. So this month an application was filed by two Moscow political activists to the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR). They are asking for a ruling that the city’s facial recognition measures when used by police to monitor public meetings and demonstrations are an unlawful infringement of individual human rights under the European Convention.

 “We’ve been sold out already,” headlined Tsargrad.tv. last week.     “The electronic concentration camp is in action.”

Most Russians don’t agree. In the first national opinion poll carried out in mid-April, 75% of the population countrywide said they support the measures taken by their regional or city governments;  13% were opposed; 12% declined to answer. The residents of Moscow and St. Petersburg were almost as compliant and supportive – 73%. Also, more of them are opposed – 19%.  In late May a second poll showed that among Muscovites, 57% approved; 39% disapproved.

(more…)

- Print This Post Print This Post



by John Helmer, Moscow 
  @bears_with

The bid by London lawyer Michael Mansfield (lead image, right) to take a multi-million pound payoff  out of the Wiltshire coroner’s inquest into the death of Dawn Sturgess (left), alleged victim of Russian  poisoning on July 8, 2018,  failed in the High Court on Friday.

A two-judge panel decided that a ruling last December by Senior Coroner David Ridley on the scope of his inquest into Sturgess’s death – allegedly caused by a Russian-made nerve agent called Novichok  — was faulty in law,  but not in fact or evidence. The judges accepted every allegation about the circumstances of Sturgess’s death by the British Government, repeated by Ridley but so far unattested or cross-examined in either the Wiltshire or London court. In sending the case back to Ridley, the High Court did not direct him to correct mistakes of evidence because none was found.

Mansfield had been hoping the court would order the coroner to broaden his investigation into the Russian state role, exposing thereby what Mansfield claims to have been British Government negligence in protecting Sturgess from the Russian danger.

“Investigating the source of the Novichok,”  the court decided, “and whether Messrs Petrov and Boshirov were acting under the direction of others either in London or in Russia, would not be a process designed to lead to a determination of a question which s 10(2)(a) prohibits the inquest from determining… There is acute and obvious public concern not merely at the prima facie evidence that an attempt was made on British soil by Russian agents to assassinate Mr Skripal and that it led to the death of Ms Sturgess, but also at the fact that it involved the use of a prohibited nerve agent exposing the population of Salisbury and Amesbury to lethal risk. There has been, and (to be realistic) there will be, no criminal trial in which the details of how this appalling event came to occur can be publicly examined. We are not saying that the broad discretion given to the Coroner can only be exercised in a way which leads to an inquest or public inquiry as broad and as lengthy as in the Litvinenko case: that is not for a court to say. We can do no more than express our doubts that the remoteness issues raised by the Senior Coroner in paragraph 82 (and referred to in paragraph 85) can properly justify an investigation as narrow as that which he has proposed. Conclusion. We allow the claim on Ground 1 only and dismiss it on Ground 2.”

Contorted by qualifiers and double negatives, the judges — London legal experts believe — have camouflaged their intention in returning the inquest to Ridley to make no practical difference to the outcome, and thereby protect the government from a challenge to the veracity of their Novichok story. Ridley has not been ordered to include in his investigation full disclosure of the CCTV, medical, biochemical and witness evidence;   or to call into the Wiltshire court the two obvious witnesses to the alleged use of Novichok,  Sergei and Yulia Skripal.

Without the threat these witnesses and their evidence pose to the official narrative of what happened to the Skripals and Sturgess, Mansfield has no bargaining power to negotiate compensation for his clients. Mansfield doesn’t speak to the press except to advertise his claims in the case to the Guardian. That newspaper has not reported Mansfield’s reaction to Friday’s verdict, but conceded he has failed to shake Ridley’s decision to restrict the inquest. “It will be up to him,” the newspaper said, “to look again at the scope of the inquest and decide how to proceed.”

(more…)

- Print This Post Print This Post



by John Helmer, Moscow 
  @bears_with

A junior member of Joe Biden’s team in waiting to take over the Pentagon, the State Department, and the National Security Council has recommended the US employ the British method of fighting Russia with the technique of “getting ahead of adversary tactics to strike either just before or immediately after a major decision, vote, or event.”  

Doubt, she concludes, is a Russian tactic of mind control. Truth by itself isn’t enough to  combat the Kremlin. Propaganda is required in advance to ensure public confidence and to deter Russian skepticism.

Rachel Ellehuus wrote this in a report she released at a Washington think-tank on Monday, July 20.  Entitled “Mind the Gaps: Assessing Russian Influence in the United Kingdom”, Ellehuus said “an analysis of the UK experience offers some indicators as to what deters Russia. In the case of the Skripal poisoning, UK officials’ success was due to several factors. First, there was coordinated messaging. Rather than each department issuing its own response (creating gaps for Russia to exploit), the various stakeholders ultimately coordinated their response through the Cabinet Office…Second, the messaging was followed by the public release of evidence to include the identity of the Russian agents, closed-circuit television footage of them around the crime scene, and records of their hotel and flights. Finally, the international community called out Russia on the international norms it had violated. Their words were then followed by punitive measures.”

Ellehuus presented her report in a webinar at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS). She was joined by the British Ambassador to the US, Dame Karen Pierce, and Luke Harding, an info-warfare reporter. Ellehuus’s report and Harding’s appearance were paid for by the State Department. “On the funding”, Ellehuus acknowledged by email, “this is a U.S. government grant from State Department’s Global Engagement Center.”

(more…)

- Print This Post Print This Post



by John Helmer, Moscow 
  @bears_with

There’s an invariable rule of politics the world over.

“It was worthwhile making sure of your potential friends,” the English novelist C.P. Snow put into the mouth of a rising cabinet minister in London a half-century ago. “As a rule you couldn’t win over your enemies, but you could lose your friends.”

In his career, President Vladimir Putin has accepted and followed only half that rule: he always keeps his friends — the Russian ones. Unfortunately, neither Putin nor his friends have understood the other half. That can be judged an improvement, nationally and historically speaking.

Lenin and Stalin understood  they couldn’t win over their enemies; they also shared an ideology explaining  why such conflict was unceasing, permanent. Since Lenin and Stalin had few friends and ended up treating them like enemies, the second half of the rule didn’t apply. Mikhail Gorbachev got both parts of the rule wrong. For different reasons so did Boris Yeltsin. Their mistakes have cost Russia and the Russians mightily, especially those who thought the ideology of permanent conflict wasn’t true.  

The same mistake might have happened to Putin if not for Russian soldiers whose ideology and whose job it is to do nothing but fight enemies. So, nationally speaking, Russians are today as good or better at fighting enemies as ever they have been. Between the Russian military and Russia’s enemies, Putin and his friends have been taught there is no winning by negotiation or persuasion, only by force. It’s less certain Putin’s friends are convinced this is so, especially towards the US and the UK, where the friends have sent their money and their children.

But those Russians have failed to win over the Americans and British. They have nothing to show for the process except for the inflated bills they have paid; a handful of foreign friends they have betrayed; and the limitless contempt of their enemies for having made the effort in the first place. Since the civil war started in the Ukraine in 2014 and sanctions followed, their bank accounts are today unprotected from freeze and unexplained wealth orders.

This is by way of reflection on two attempts this past week of Russian state spokesmen to defend Russia against its enemies by persuasion, not by force. The two are Maria Zakharova,  spokesman of the Russian Foreign Ministry, and Kirill Dmitriev, chairman of the Russian Direct Investment Fund (RDIF), the state sovereign wealth fund.  They failed with the enemies; this is to be expected and unremarkable.   But what friends they thought they were addressing and how they lost them – that’s the breaking news.  

(more…)

- Print This Post Print This Post



by John Helmer, Moscow 
  @bears_with

The editor of the Financial Times of London, and four of the Japanese-owned newspaper’s employees have been caught out fabricating a new story about a Russian-made and Russian- named nerve agent allegedly used to attack Sergei and Yulia Skripal, Dawn Sturgess and Charles Rowley in England two years ago.

In a report published on July 9, the newspaper claims it has “reviewed” four classified reports from the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) which were obtained from an Austrian fraudster named Jan Marsalek.  His source for the documents, the newspaper suggests, was a Russian intelligence agency. Austrian press investigations say Marsalek’s source was the Austrian government.

The names of the fakers are Roula Khalaf, the Financial Times editor; Paul Murphy, investigations editor; Dan McCrum, a reporter; Helen Warrell, NATO correspondent; and Max Seddon of the Moscow bureau.  

They claim that Marsalek “touted secret documents about the use of a Russian chemical weapon in the UK, as he bragged of ties to intelligence services to ingratiate himself with London traders. …Documents shown to traders in 2018 and reviewed by the FT included the precise chemical compound for novichok, used in the poisoning of an ex-spy and his daughter in the UK in March of that year.” They cited a British Army chemical warfare commander as source for claiming the documents had not “come from OPCW member states in western Europe or the US”. They implied Marsalek got them from “Russia’s GRU military intelligence unit”. In a related publication the next day,  the reporters identified “Mr Marsalek’s association with individuals or networks linked to Russia’s military intelligence directorate, the GRU.”

Asked to substantiate the OPCW documents they are holding, correct factual mistakes they  made from the papers themselves, and identify their evidence of Marsalek’s alleged GRU connection, Khalaf and the reporters refuse to answer.  

(more…)

- Print This Post Print This Post



by John Helmer, Moscow 
  @bears_with

Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte (lead image) surprised his own country’s lawyers last week with the filing of a Dutch Government claim against Russia at the European Court of Human Rights for the shooting-down of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17. “The Dutch government decided”, declared the official announcement,    “to bring Russia before the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) for its role in the downing of Flight MH17.”

“By submitting an inter-State application,” Rutte’s statement explained, “the government is sharing all available and relevant information about the downing of Flight MH17 with the ECtHR. The contents of the inter-State application will also be incorporated into The Netherlands’ intervention in the individual applications submitted by the victims’ next of kin against Russia to the ECHR. By taking this course of action the government is offering maximum support to these individual cases.”

In fact, according to international lawyers, the Dutch move contributes nothing to the individual cases now pending from MH17 victims’ families because the court has suspended all of them since December 2018.

The lawyers also point out the contradiction between alleging in the criminal trial in The Hague District Court now under way  that the Russian government and military were not behind the actions of the four men accused of the shoot-down;  and Rutte’s allegation of Russian state guilt to the European court. “This isn’t just parallel litigation, which the ECHR has already refused to allow,” commented a London legal expert. “It’s a vote of no confidence in the Dutch prosecutors to secure convictions in the murder case they are trying to make.”

Rutte’s move has been dismissed in The Netherlands by Dutch lawyers, and also by victims’ families, as cynical electioneering. The prime minister, they believe, is attempting to hold on to power before the general election due next March despite having lost the majority of party votes in both houses of the Dutch parliament.

“For our prime minister Rutte,” commented Dutch lawyer Alfred Vierling, “this entire circus is the crucial test case for his higher political ambitions. He has promised to the victims’ families that the proverbial last stone will be turned over.  Maybe, but I expect that we shall all be crushed under a pile of lies first.”

“The new Dutch move,” responds Canadian war crimes specialist, attorney Christopher Black, “is an attempt to mask the fact that the trial before the Dutch courts is a biassed, one-sided affair, based on unsupported claims of the Kiev regime and the suppression of the evidence provided by Russia and eye-witnesses that support the case that the Kiev regime and its allies are responsible for the shoot-down. Instead of bringing justice to the victims, this is another attempt by NATO to deny them the real justice they are due.”

(more…)

- Print This Post Print This Post



by John Helmer, Moscow 
  @bears_with

It’s an old tsarist ploy. When government officials grow fearful of public protests, attacks on the authorities, and rioting, they increase the volume of alcohol for sale but decrease the number of places where drinkers can gather in public.

Vodka is the opium of the people: this has been the Russian adaptation of Karl Marx’s observation about religion; that was in 1843, long before Marx got acquainted with how things worked in Russia. The way things now work, starting in St Petersburg this month, the opium of the people is banned by a new law from being sold in establishments of less than 50 square metres in floor space; the legal space is even smaller in other regions. This control measure may suit police and priests. But the real benefit will be earned by the large retailers of take-away alcohol, and the large bar and restaurant chains.  

“This law will have low influence on the amount of alcohol sales in St. Petersburg, because alcohol sold in bars is only 5% of the total sold,” observes Vadim Drobiz, director of the Centre for Federal and Regional Alcohol Markets (TsIFRRA). “But it will have a great influence on the culture of drinking. In Europe, the US and other Western countries, pubs and bars are usually places for meetings of friends, and the bar culture has a unique history. That’s why the [corona virus] pandemic is a big blow for them there. In Russia the number of pubs and bars is five times less than abroad. But instead of increasing the number of such places, St. Petersburg is now aiming to decrease it.  That’s some kind of retrogression.”

“The United Russia party in St. Petersburg insists on the new restrictions in order to increase  public order. But if people aren’t drinking in pubs, they will move to homes, yards, parks, so the situation with public order will become even worse. The police didn’t want to control the situation with pubs. Now they’ll have to control it in other places, and it will be more difficult.

Who will profit?  “Large business,” responds Drobiz, “especially the retailers who focus on alcohol, and the big bars. St. Petersburg won’t lose much in tax income, because the consumers will shift to other sources of alcohol, but lots of small and medium businesses will be closed.”

Kirill Maistrov, who owns and runs the Docker Pub in St. Petersburg, says: “Everyone is trying to make money out of the pandemic before the controls are lifted. This is nothing more than a market-share grab by the big retailers.”   

(more…)

- Print This Post Print This Post



by John Helmer, Moscow 
  @bears_with

It was the 412th of Francois de la Rochefoucauld’s maxims that doesn’t stand the test of either time or money. “Whatever degree of disgrace we may have brought upon ourselves,” he said, “it is always within our power to re-establish our reputation.”

For years Mikhail Fridman and Pyotr Aven, the controllers of Alfa Bank of Moscow and  LetterOne Holding in London, have been trying but not succeeding. This week they scored a success, but not quite of the kind they, or La Rochefoucauld, meant.

High Court judge Sir Mark Warby ruled that claims made about their corrupt closeness to President Vladimir Putin, prepared by Christopher Steele for use by the Democratic National Committee against the presidential campaign of Donald Trump, had been “hearsay, some of it opinion, and much of it based on unverifiable information from unidentified sources”; “data [which] are inaccurate or misleading as a matter of fact”. When fabricating his claims Steele  “evidently did not ask for any details of the hearsay information”. Later, when under cross-examination in court, Steele admitted that “a key element of [his] allegation was contradicted by information readily available on the internet.”

Most of Steele’s shoddy fabrications were acceptable in British law. This, Justice Warby ruled, was because they were provided through the Secret Intelligence Service (MI6) to an unnamed “senior UK government national security official”, and to the FBI for “the purpose of safeguarding national security”; and because the “US and UK are the world’s leading English-speaking democracies, with a wealth of closely integrated interests… co-operation between the US and UK on matters of security is a vital part of our nation’s security arrangements.”

Complaining that Steele had changed his story from his initial witness statement to his second witness statement, and then in the witness box, Warby concluded that he preferred Fridman for truthfulness. “There is nothing that casts doubt on Mr Fridman’s evidence on this issue.” That  was the allegation the Alfa group had traded favours with President Putin, and that they had bribed him with “large amounts of illicit cash…in the 1990s when he was Deputy Mayor of St Petersburg.” This, the judge ruled, was not only a fabrication but was also unlawful.

In compensation, Warby awarded £18,000 each to Fridman and Aven, for a total of £36,000.

“I accept,” the judge qualified his award, “that the claimants have suffered distress as a result of the disclosures complained of, though the majority of the distress they have been caused will inevitably have flowed from media publications for which Orbis is not responsible in law: the Buzzfeed Article and others. My assessment is that each of the claimants is a robust character, not given to undue self-pity. Mr Tomlinson [barrister for Fridman and Aven] was right to ask for only ‘modest’ damages for distress.”

Modest for Fridman; ruinous for Steele. High Court experts estimate the combination of fees and costs for the barristers and solicitors required for the court claim by the Alfa group would have come to between £500,000 and £600,000; that’s roughly sixteen times the compensation awarded. The penalty is concomitantly higher for Steele and his Orbis Business Intelligence Ltd., the firm he has run since his official espionage employment ended at MI6. According to the company’s last financial account, there isn’t enough money to pay the legal bills. Steele’s business is bust.  

(more…)

- Print This Post Print This Post



by John Helmer, Moscow 
  @bears_with

Pavel Volchkov is an exceptional voice among the Russian scientists now dealing with the corona virus (Covid-19) pandemic.

The current Covid-19 policy administrators in Moscow are of the same academic generation but they have trained as doctors;  Volchkov is a geneticist. They have spent their formative careers inside Russian institutions;  Volchkov spent more than ten years in the US, at the University of Chicago then at Harvard.  

He has not suffered from the inferiority complex which has been the precondition for success in the US careers of Konstantin (Keith) Gessen and other Russian graduates from Harvard.   Volchkov’s analysis of the US science market and his reasons for returning to  his Russian laboratory are described here.

“There’s always someone in America,” Volchkov says, “who can find better funding than you. There’s always someone better than you. And Russia is only at the stage of the emergence of something more or less wealthy and constructive than the use and trade of natural resources. Even the janitor has already realized, and not just the economists in the government, that it is time to create high-tech companies that can make a product that is not related to natural resources. This was also one of the drivers of my move [back to Russia]. I saw that the situation with science has improved slightly. Of course, when I returned to Russia, everything was different. But ten years in America hardens you. These are difficult years. You break yourself, rebuild yourself, become flexible, purposeful. If you don’t, you are lost. If I hadn’t gone there, I wouldn’t have become what I am now.”

No repatriating Russian is as clear-eyed on what has been left behind in the US – and what lies ahead for Russia.

(more…)

- Print This Post Print This Post



by John Helmer, Moscow 
  @bears_with

The ruling issued on July 3 by Dutch district court judge Hendrik Steenhuis (lead image, right) requires the Russian defendant, Lieutenant-Colonel Oleg Pulatov (centre), to prove his innocence with evidence prepared by the Ukrainian Security Service (SBU). By the standard announced a month earlier by the Russian Foreign Ministry, this is a fundamental violation of Pulatov’s legal rights, making a guilty verdict inevitable.   

Russian and international lawyers believe the defence lawyers should walk out. “In the conditions which the Dutch court has set,” comments Canadian Christopher Black, a veteran litigator in international war crimes trials, “this is now nothing more than the Ukrainian civil war fought by the Kiev regime with lawyers instead of soldiers. It’s a show trial. Nothing more than propaganda. No legal right for the accused is served by having his lawyers present. Since the defendants have refused to appear in person – three of them disputing the Dutch jurisdiction — the defence lawyers should withdraw.”

(more…)