THE BELL WEEKLY: Military blogger assassination
Hello! This week our top story is the assassination of military blogger Vladlen Tatarsky and why it might trigger a fresh round of repression in Russia. We also look at the arrest of WSJ reporter Evan Gershkovich and a report that Russia is once again considering using convict labor in the defense industry.
The killing of Vladlen Tatarsky could spark a crackdown
Vladlen Tatarsky, one of Russia’s best-known pro-war bloggers, was killed by an IED on Sunday evening while he delivered a speech in a bar in St. Petersburg. According to official reports, 30 people were injured in the blast. This assassination will have far greater repercussions than the murder of Daria Dugina, the daughter of nationalist ideologue Alexander Dugin, last summer. The authorities have already accused jailed opposition leader Alexei Navalny’s supporters of orchestrating the attack and pro-war Telegram channels are demanding that the entire liberal opposition should be held to account.
- Tatarsky’s murder was dramatic. On Sunday evening the pro-war blogger was speaking at Street Food Bar № 1, owned by the leader of mercenary group Wagner, Yevgeny Prigozhin. During one of the intervals, a young woman apparently came to Tatarsky and presented him with a gift — a plaster bust depicting the man himself. Eyewitnesses recalled how Tatarsky asked the girl to sit with him, but she got nervous and refused — eventually taking a seat some distance away. Five minutes later, the sculpture exploded. Tatarsky was killed instantly and 32 others were injured.
- Tatarsky’s real name is Maxim Fomin and his life was as dramatic as his death. According to his own words, he was born in Makiivka in Ukraine’s eastern Donbas Region and spent most of his life there. His father and grandfather were miners and he also worked in the coal mines after leaving school. Then, he set up a furniture retail business and opened several stores. However, the business was unsuccessful and, due to his financial worries, Tatarsky robbed a bank in 2011. He was jailed, but in 2014 he escaped when his prison was shelled. Amid the violence of a separatist uprising fomented by Russia, he joined a rebel militia in the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic. Later, in neighboring separatist Luhansk, he served in an intelligence unit under the codename “Professor” and wrote an autobiography. Later, he was jailed once again — only to be pardoned by Alexander Zakharenko, the leader of the Donetsk People’s Republic who was himself assassinated in a 2018 bombing.
- After retiring from military service in 2019, Fomin moved to Moscow and started a blog. He also launched a Telegram channel under the pseudonym Vladlen Tatarsky. When Russia invaded Ukraine, he joined the so-called Vostok battalion and “reported on events” from the frontline, including the assault on the Azovstal plant in Mariupol. By his own admission, Tatarsky engaged in “military propaganda” in cooperation with the Wagner-associated Telegram channel Reverse Side of the Medal. Tatarsky’s Telegram channel has more than 500,000 subscribers.
- In one interview, Fomin claimed that he wished to bring about “the total destruction of the Ukrainian state” and to “cure [Ukrainians] of Russophobia.” Last September, he was invited to the ceremonial signing of the Russian decree that annexed four occupied regions of Ukraine. In the halls of the Kremlin, he recorded a video message to his followers, concluding with the words: “We will defeat everyone, we will kill everyone, we will take everything we need, everything will be how we want it.”
- There was confusion in the initial Russian response to the explosion. After a few hours, anonymous sources within the security forces announced that a suspect had been detained. However, overnight it emerged that this was not true. But, at about 11:00 a.m. the following day a young woman was arrested. The suspect is 26-year-old Daria Trepova, a feminist activist well known in St. Petersburg. A year ago, she was jailed for 10 days following an anti-war protest. After her arrest, Trepova said that she had been “used” but did not say by whom. Pro-Kremlin media have not questioned this explanation. In one version, an unidentified “curator” handed the bust to Trepova, telling her it contained a listening device. Officially, Trepova was arrested on charges of “organizing a terrorist act.” She faces at least 15 years in jail, with a maximum sentence of life imprisonment.
- Unlike a previous comparable assassination — the killing of Dugina — the Russian authorities quickly decided on their version of events. By Monday afternoon, the National Anti-terrorist Committee had stated that the killing “was planned by Ukrainian secret services with the involvement of agents from [Navalny’s] FBK, of which Trepova is an active supporter.”
Why the world should care
The statements from Russian security officials about the role Navalny’s supporters played in the explosion make two things clear. Firstly (and the Russian authorities came close to directly acknowledging this), the authorities intend to use the situation as a pretext to root out any remnants of Navalny’s organization within Russia. Secondly, unlike the Dugina killing, which was immediately blamed on Ukrainians, this time the Russian opposition has been apportioned its share of responsibility. This makes it highly likely that the explosion will trigger a new crackdown inside Russia.
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Evan Gershovich’s arrest is a warning to the West
WSJ journalist Evan Gershkovich was detained on suspicion of espionage last week — the first such case involving a foreign reporter since the Cold War. This was likely not only intended to top up Russia’s “exchange fund” for future prisoner swaps with the U.S., but to send a warning to remaining Western journalists in Russia. However, the authorities are not seeking to unleash any kind of spymania among the broader population — there has been almost no domestic media coverage of the Gershkovich case.
- Evan Gershkovich was arrested on Wednesday in Yekaterinburg, Russia’s third-largest city that is known as both a major center for defense production and as a relative hotbed of liberalism. Gershkovich visited the city twice in the past month. According to his colleagues, he was researching stories about how mercenary outfit Wagner and defense factories were recruiting convicts from local prisons, a conflict between local governor Yevgeny Kuivashev and Wagner boss Yevgeny Prigozhin and the attitude of Yekaterinburg residents to the war.
- The specific charges against Gershkovich were not disclosed and we are unlikely to ever learn much about them. In Russia, investigations and trials relating to treason or espionage are classified. Ivan Safronov, who got 22 years in jail in the best-known recent case of this type, still does not know the details of the charge on which he was convicted – the information he allegedly passed to foreign intelligence services is a state secret. In the Gershkovich case, we only know what the FSB officially said: he is suspected of “espionage on behalf of the American government” and allegedly gathered classified information about the activities of “an enterprise within the Russian military-industrial complex.” President Vladimir Putin’s spokesperson Dmitry Peskov said subsequently that he was “caught red-handed.”
- Right now, it’s easier than ever for the FSB to fabricate such a case. In July, the Russian parliament significantly broadened the legal definitions of “treason” and “espionage”. Currently, this law includes not only gathering information classed as a state secret, but also collecting any information “that could be used against the Russian army or government agencies” with a view to “transferring it to an enemy.”
- It’s clear that the Russian authorities see a WSJ reporter as a useful addition to their “exchange fund” and as a way to exert leverage over Washington. Many thought that the most recent prisoner swap between the U.S. and Russia, in which basketball player Brittney Griner was traded for arms dealer Viktor Bout, benefitted Moscow far more than Washington. The deputy head of Russia’s Foreign Ministry felt the need to offer comments (albeit meaningless ones) on the possibility of an exchange on the very day Gershkovich was detained. Now, Russia can pressure the White House by handing him a huge jail term — don’t forget Safronov was jailed for 22 years.
- The arrest of a foreign journalist with Foreign Ministry accreditation (which means he has passed a Federal Security Service (FSB) security check) is an unprecedented event. The last time it happened was in 1986 when the Soviet Union arrested Nicholas Daniloff, a reporter with the U.S. News & World Report, and, like Gershkovich, a descendant of Russian immigrants. The journalist’s arrest looked like a set-up and happened just a few days after a member of the Russian mission to the UN, Gennady Zakharov, was arrested in the U.S. on charges of espionage. Daniloff spent just 13 days in prison before he was exchanged for Zakharov.
- The idea that Gershkovich’s arrest is a message from the Kremlin to the White House is reinforced by the fact that Russia’s domestic propaganda outfits have been almost silent on the event. Rossiya TV’s evening news gave the story a brief mention 51 minutes into the show. And it has been entirely absent from other flagship shows on state-owned television.
Why the world should care
Topping up Russia’s “exchange fund” is very much a secondary motive behind Evan Gerhkovich’s arrest. After driving independent Russian journalists out of the country, the Kremlin is now sending a clear warning to their foreign counterparts: even Foreign Ministry accreditation is no longer a guarantee of safety. Foreign journalists must either leave the country or continue their work under the threat of arrest.
Russia continues to toy with Stalinist practice of putting convicts to work
The Federal Prison Service (FSIN) is revisiting a 2017 idea to send prisoners to work for defense conglomerate Rostec, which manages most of Russia’s military factories. Convicts are unlikely to be used in the assembling of missiles and aircraft, but could be given other, less skilled roles, sources told the Kommersant newspaper Wednesday.
- Back in January the head of FSIN wrote to Rostec boss Sergei Chemezov to offer the assistance of convicts, Kommersant reported. And, according to Kommersant’s sources, Rostec raised the question with several of its constituent businesses. Neither Rostec nor FSIN commented on the claim.
- It is unclear exactly where these prisoners might be put to work, but Kommersant’s sources feel that they are unlikely to gain the security clearance needed to assemble missiles or aircraft, or work on new technologies. However, they believe that “collaboration” is possible in other, less skilled positions.
- In theory, prisoners could work within Rostec to produce parts — for example circuit boards or electronic components — rather than finished products, one source suggested. Moreover, there is, according to Kommnersant, greater interest in getting women to work on this because women are “more diligent, accurate and patient.”
- In addition, Russia’s prisons could become suppliers of, for example, containers, overalls and “other kinds of simple products” while also “assisting in the construction of facilities,” according to Kommersant.
- The first reports that Rostec was considering the use of prison labor emerged in 2017. At that time, the state corporation said convicts would not be involved in secret, high-tech production, but “we will find work for prisoners.” Rostec has 14 holdings and more than 700 enterprises across dozens of manufacturing industries. Last year it was reported that UralVagonZavod, Russia’s largest tank factory, would employ 250 convicts. It was assumed they would perform roles including driller, turner, grinder, miller, crane operator and so on. In 2020, state-owned Sberbank reportedly used prisoners to help develop its AI interfaces.
Why the world should care
It’s a warning sign when the defense sector returns to the idea of forced labor. Above all, it’s yet another indicator of Russia’s ongoing labor shortage. However, this is unlikely to greatly help the Russian defense industry: using prison labor comes with significant costs in terms of organizing prison guards, providing the necessary uniforms and specialized equipment. It’s also logistically difficult: there are several factors to consider, including where prisoners are held, the severity of their punishment and the level of security required. Thus, it’s unlikely we will see widespread use of prison labor in Russia’s defense industry.