THE BELL WEEKLY: Putin’s ‘boring’ China visit

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Hello! This week we look at how Russian media put an upbeat spin on Putin’s underwhelming visit to China. We also look at a clash between pro-military bloggers and Chechen authorities over a domestic violence case and Dmitry Medvedev threatening Yandex over its AI chatbot.

Propagandists cheer Putin’s “boring” visit to China

Vladimir Putin and a heavyweight team of advisors, ministers and business leaders visited China last week in the president’s first overseas trip since his latest inauguration. The packed delegation was yet again unable to secure an agreement on the elusive Power of Siberia 2 gas pipeline — a project Russia sees as crucial to securing gas revenues following the loss of European markets. Nor did they announce a solution to growing cross-border payments issues amid tougher US sanctions. Nevertheless, Russian propagandists still managed to squeeze out a reason to celebrate the visit — mainly that it showed Russia and China’s friendship is stronger than ever.

  • One column in state-owned Rossiyskaya Gazeta newspaper did admit that Putin’s trip to China was rather underwhelming. Calling it “boring,” it said there was no intrigue, no “hot” news, and none of the stage-managed improvisation that can add a degree of excitement to such visits. Instead, the trip merely underscored the familiar “vector for progressive development.” However, the author noted: at a time of an “escalating global mess,” putting on a show of stability and business-as-usual ties between Beijing and Moscow was exactly what the trip was intended for.
  • RIA Novosti, one of the biggest state-run news agencies, ran a column with a similar message: Russia and China used the trip to confirm their intentions for strategic cooperation at a time when the West is trying to use sanctions and economic pressure to upset Sino-Russian relations. This “brotherly” relationship has a long history: back in the Korean War, the writer claimed, both countries stood against an American army that threatened their borders.
  • Putin’s trip did not lead the agenda of the most popular end-of-week state TV news reviews. They were overshadowed by the breaking news of the Iranian president’s helicopter crashing and the situation on the front line in Ukraine, where Russian forces have claimed a string of territorial gains. On both Rossiya 1 and Channel 1 the visit was in second spot in the running order, while NTV relegated it to fifth place. “Ties between Russia and China are stronger in spite of the storms,” Rossiya 1 said.
  • Pro-Kremlin analyst Sergei Markov suggested that the trip did have a greater, hidden significance than might appear at first glance. “The most important issue that was resolved during the talks was absolutely top secret,” he said. “Nobody will ever know the full outcome of the trip since the task is to create a trade system between the two countries that is completely closed off to the Americans and lies beyond the reach of secondary sanctions.” There was no corroboration of his claims.
  • American analyst Michael Pillsbury also got plenty of air-time in Russia after he told Fox News that the friendly embrace between Putin and Xi Jinping represented “a colossal strategic defeat for the US” because the Chinese leader is usually far more reserved. In total, more than 20 pro-government outlets picked up his comments. 

Why the world should care:

Putin’s trip to China was hardly a breakthrough. Serious problems, not least over mounting issues with cross-border payments, remain for Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin to deal with when he meets his Chinese counterpart in Moscow in an upcoming trip. Russian state media coverage reflected this, not even trying to present news of a sensational agreement to the Russian public, instead falling back on the familiar “no-limits friendship” trope, just dressed up in slightly new clothes for this occasion.

Pro-military bloggers clash with Chechen authorities over abuse case

A young woman who fled her relatives in Chechnya after facing abuse has garnered unexpected support from Russian Z-bloggers. Facing the possibility of being forcibly sent back to the conservative Muslim region and likely harsh repercussions, pro-military voices came out in her support, criticizing the Caucasus republic as “medieval.” It is the latest human rights case from the region to hit national headlines in Russia.

  • Liya Zaurbekova, a 19-year-old Chechen native fled the ultra-conservative region on May 13, fearing for her life amid physical and psychological abuse from her family. Just three days after she arrived in Moscow, she saw her father prowling the courtyard outside her new home. She called the police and was taken to the local precinct. There, Zaurbekova learned that her family had reported her as a missing minor (although at 19, she would already be regarded as an adult under Russian law) and her relatives soon surrounded the police station. Officers outside seized a pistol from one of them. 
  • The Chechen authorities quickly got involved. Adam Delimkhanov, a Chechen deputy in the lower chamber of parliament, took personal responsibility for the issue and promised that the girl would be forcibly returned to her family. He also said that somebody had deliberately misled her, and whoever was responsible would “suffer a well-deserved punishment to the full extent of the law.”
  • At first, the Moscow police did not take Zaurbekova seriously and were reluctant to help. According to human rights activists, they were initially dismissive, saying: “you Chechens have these traditions.” But once her lawyers arrived and the story gained national media coverage, their attitude changed and they helped distract her relatives so she could get out of the police station and leave the country. Chechen authorities were not happy about that. The human rights ombudsman in the republic called Zaurbekova’s supporters “swindlers” and “kidnappers.” 
  • Popular pro-war Z-bloggers unexpectedly took the girl’s side. In posts they described the Chechens demanding her return as “Nazi cavemen” and described the situation as a “medieval game.” They also criticized the sluggish police response in Moscow. 
  • Women’s rights in Chechnya periodically attract wider media attention when high-profile or particularly egregious cases emerge. In the fall of 2022, 26-year-old Seda Suleimanova fled her family in Chechnya. She said she was being abused and was being forced into marriage. She was arrested in St. Petersburg in summer 2023 after her mother wrote a statement claiming Seda had stolen jewelry from her. Suleimanova denied all the accusations. She was taken to the regional capital Grozny and has not been seen since. Her friends and human rights activists believe she was killed. The practice of “honor killings” persists in Chechnya, with the murders usually hushed up and rarely making it to court. The authorities did not open an investigation into Suleimanova’s disappearance until April 2024.

Why the world should care:

From a legal point of view, Chechnya is a unique part of Russia where nationwide rules do not apply in practice. It’s possible that for the first time in a long time, parts of Russian “patriotic” society were confronted with this widely-known fact and for some reason took exception to this case. There is no chance their dissent will have any impact or consequences. But it may signal that even pro-military voices do not support every government decision on social issues. In particular, not everyone is happy to accept a soft approach towards Chechnya in exchange for stability in a once violent and separatist region.

Medvedev threatens reprisals against Yandex bosses over GPT chatbot

Former president Dmitry Medvedev, the most prominent hawk among senior Russian officials, criticized Yandex’s efforts to create an artificial neural network. Medvedev was unhappy with the efforts of the company, sometimes dubbed “Russia’s Google”, because its AI chatbot refused to answer questions about Ukraine.

  • Medvedev, now deputy chair of the Security Council who has built a reputation as one of the most vocal pro-war hawks (read more about that here), has blasted Yandex for its GPT chatbot refusing to answer a series of politically charged questions, including over Ukraine. For instance, it refused to say on which date the United States passed legislation allowing the seizure of Russian assets and could not name the location of a monument to Stepan Bandera, a Ukrainian nationalist that Russia admonishes for his far-right links. Moscow has baselessly branded the current Kyiv government as Banderites who pursue a fascist ideology.
  • According to Medvedev, the bot replied: “I'm still just learning and I don't want to look stupid,” when he posed the questions. “And then it got absurd. We asked: ‘how far is it as the crow flies from Kyiv to Belgorod?’ [the southern Russian city most frequently hit by Ukrainian shelling during the war]. It answered: ‘429 km.’ We asked the same thing again, and it started playing the fool. Even though it measures all other distances perfectly well,” he said in a Telegram post.
  • The failure to answer the basic questions “seriously undermines our faith” in Yandex, Medvedev said, adding that it suggested a “very incomplete” service and “gives grounds ... to regard its current management as foreign agents.” Currently in Russia, any person or organization can be branded a foreign agent for criticism of the Kremlin, the war in Ukraine or for going against Moscow’s policies, such as through public support for the LGBT+ community. Although the Russian authorities insist the status is not discriminatory, foreign agents encounter many restrictions, including being banned from running for election or publishing advertising. 
  • Medvedev’s threats against Yandex come just a few days after the company officially changed ownership. Co-founder Arkady Volozh and his management team — who previously controlled the company via trusts held by the Dutch-based Yandex N.V — handed ownership to a consortium of Russian investors, half of whom have ties to major Russian oil-and-gas companies.

Why the world should care:

Medvedev’s complaints are aimed directly at Yandex’s Russian managers and investors. In contrast to Volozh, who has lived in Israel since 2015, these people chose to remain in Russia after the invasion of Ukraine. That fact alone may no longer be enough to protect them.


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