THE BELL WEEKLY: Special benefits for Russia’s ‘new elite’

The Bell

Hello! This week we cover the growing number of special benefits and legal exemptions for Russian soldiers coming back from Ukraine. We also look at the authorities’ response to unprecedented flooding and plans to use AI to improve online censorship.

Airlines told to roll out the red carpet for Russian soldiers

Only a few weeks have passed since Russian President Vladimir Putin said those fighting in Ukraine were his country’s “new elite”, but already the privileges and special status being afforded to Russian soldiers who have served in Ukraine are racking up. Russia’s aviation agency last week advised airlines to give “participants in the special military operation” priority when checking in, passing through security and boarding flights. It also warned of consequences for anybody who showed an “inappropriate attitude” towards them — an apparent reference to asking airlines to be more lenient with soldiers that break the rules or disrupt other passengers. Speedy boarding is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the benefits being rolled out for veterans of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, but it is emblematic of their new status in the country.

  • Kommersant has reported on a leaked letter from the Rosaviatsia air transport regulator advising airlines how they should treat “participants in the Special Military Operation,” as Russian soldiers who fought Ukraine are officially known. Airlines were urged to grant them priority check-in and fast lines through airport security, while staff should be instructed to avoid “instances of inappropriate communication with military personnel.” Veterans should also be able to rebook tickets if they have a legitimate reason for missing a flight and those with mobility issues should be allocated the most comfortable seats.
  • The timing of this advice is no coincidence. Since the turn of the year, there have been about a dozen high-profile scandals and clashes involving soldiers in airports and on planes. In one notorious incident in February, passengers on a flight from Moscow to Yakutsk persuaded police not to arrest a rowdy soldier. In another case, a veteran was kicked off a Pobeda flight for smoking, prompting the head of Russia’s Investigative Committee, Alexander Bastyrkin, to open a criminal case against the airline.
  • Aviation officials are simply trying to protect themselves ahead of inevitable further confrontations, a senior manager at one of Russia’s leading airlines told The Bell. However, the instructions look like official advice to turn a blind eye to bad behavior from servicemen. Other businesses are wondering whether Rosaviatsia’s recommendations might become a template for regulators in other sectors. There are more and more reports of conflicts (especially in bars) involving soldiers just back from the front. And the patriotic segment of society is becoming increasingly vocal in its reaction to them. One coffee shop owner, for instance, was charged with discrediting the armed forces and has been placed under an extremism investigation after she asked a misbehaving soldier to leave the premises. 
  • Russian veterans of the Ukraine offensive already enjoy a wide range of official benefits. Contract soldiers are exempt from prosecution for various crimes. Without exception, all participants of the war are entitled to free legal aid and bailiffs cannot seize their assets. They have recently been exempted from paying interest on consumer loans. In higher education, 10% of course places are offered for free to military personnel and their families, and there are scholarships for students who have served at the front.

Why the world should care

Official benefits and legal exemptions for “participants in the special military operation” merely underline their special status in Russian society. Their elevation to this level — increasingly being placed above the rules and offered leniency where others would be punished — is not just about being recognised in Putin’s speeches. And it isn’t just about a few fringe perks. War veterans are also the biggest material winners from the great redistribution of wealth in Russia that began with the war.

Unprecedented flooding unlikely to shake trust in Putin

The main topic in Russia over the last few weeks has been the catastrophic flooding in the Orenburg region in the southern Urals, along the border with Kazakhstan. In Orsk, rising river waters burst through a poorly constructed dam, completely flooding the city of some 200,000 people. A few days later the authorities were forced to evacuate several thousand people in Orenburg itself, a city of 600,000. Orsk residents, angered by the local government’s ineffective response and what they saw as a paltry compensation offer, flocked to an unsanctioned rally — only to ask for Vladimir Putin’s personal help.

  • The flooding in the southern Urals began with the usual spring thaw, but turned into a disaster on April 5 when a dam burst on the Ural River near the city of Orsk. Embarrassingly, the dam was built in 2014 specifically to prevent this kind of flooding. The waters swamped 6,000 houses, forcing their inhabitants to evacuate. The authorities had invested 910 million rubles ($24 million at the exchange rate of the day) in constructing the dam. It has now become clear that some of the construction work was never actually completed, instead being ticked off only on paper. A director of the company that built the dam tried to claim that mice had nibbled their way through the structure since it was finished. According to the Construction Ministry, damage from the flooding will cost 21 billion rubles ($230 million).
  • The floods did not just affect local residents. An oil refinery in the Orsk was put out of action as well. Experts say that it delivers 1.5–2% of Russia’s refined oil output. Under normal circumstances, closing the plant for a week would barely be noticed. However, due to Ukrainian drone attacks on multiple energy sites, Russia has already lost 14% of its refining capacity. The Russian authorities had to ask neighboring Kazakhstan to help prevent gasoline shortages by creating an emergency reserve of 100,000 tons.
  • From day one, the authorities adopted a ham-fisted approach to the thousands of local residents displaced by the floods. Arriving in Orsk, Emergency Situations Minister Alexander Kurenkov indulged in some victim-blaming on state TV by saying an evacuation was announced a week earlier and nobody had wanted to leave. Residents insist that there was no evacuation plan, and the Orsk Mayor said on social media just two days before the floods that the dam would hold. At a meeting with local residents, the governor ordered members of the public to put away their phones so they couldn’t record the meeting, and moaned that the flood had forced him to cut short his vacation. Bots hired by someone in the agencies responsible for flood relief peppered social media with messages that the protests were “simply rude: nobody spent the night on the streets, nobody was left without help, they all survived and received first aid.”
  • Three days after the dam broke, Orsk residents staged a rally against the city administration. At first, the authorities tried to get the police to break it up, but later the governors met with representatives of the protestors (and complained about interrupting his break). The main refrain of the protest was the traditional Russian slogan: “Putin, help us!” Russians continue to believe that bungling local bureaucrats are to blame for everything, while Putin is the white knight who can clean up the mess. One viral video of a local woman ironically describing the minister’s tour of the flood-affected areas on a steampunk superboat proves once again that Russians retain a vicious sense of sarcasm towards Putin and the authorities. But this alone will not spark significant protest.

Why the world should care

The degradation of Soviet-built infrastructure and the lack of quality replacements is a problem that will only escalate. However, like with the wider deterioration of the economy, despite the physical damage, such incidents will certainly not trigger widespread anti-Kremlin protests.

AI-powered internet censorship

Russia’s internet watchdog wants to use artificial intelligence to block access to restricted information on the Russian internet. AI should help the agency block unwanted content three times faster — within an hour of publication — and strike down content more accurately, the authorities say.

  • Russia’s Roskomnadzor communications regulator plans to start using AI this year to create and maintain a register of blocked sites, according to documents seen by Kommersant.
  • The agency already uses its own information system to seek out and block access to online content that is prohibited in Russia. Tender documents issued by Roskomnadzor imply that in addition to tracking prohibited content, it has the ability to classify it according to its character (based on a neutral, negative or positive opinion of the author) and also to find copies and duplications of banned material and sites.
  • In 2023 the system typically took three hours to identify unlawful content from the moment it was published. This year, the aim is to reduce that to two hours using AI and by the end of 2026 the average deletion time should be down to just 60 minutes. The agency is also targeting a drop in the error rate from 20% to 10%. AI should enable Roskomnadzor to block content both faster and more thoroughly, since it makes it possible to “identify complex contextual connections between text fragments, finding hidden patterns and associations,” the agency said in the documents obtained by Kommersant.
  • The agency’s site-blocking operations are already partially automated. In March, it stopped updating a public register of forbidden sites, because Roskomnadzor no longer needs to notify telecom operators of what sites to block. Previously, operators were responsible for blocking content but now the agency can do it directly thanks to technological and equipment upgrades.

Why the world should care

The first thing that comes to mind when hearing about plans to use AI to censor the internet is that this is a blatant waste of taxpayers’ money on technology that the authorities cannot begin to understand. But in recent years the internet watchdog has sharpened its teeth. In 2018, Roskomnadzor’s failed attempt to block Telegram prompted ridicule and amusement across the internet. Since then, though, a new management team has begun to introduce more effective means of blocking sites, achieving results in some areas comparable to the Great Firewall of China.


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