1. The men who poisoned the Skripals may have used their real names to enter the UK
Global media coverage this week was focused on two individuals, known as Ruslan Boshirov and Alexander Petrov. UK police believe the two men murdered the Skripals and are paid-up agents of the GRU, Russia’s military intelligence, and were using pseudonyms. But details uncovered by Russian journalists suggest that either (i) the names are real, (ii) real people with these names existed or (iii) the names were taken on as assumed identities many years ago. Be it on purpose or not, the evidence left by the suspects leaves Russia exposed for further Western sanctions.
- Passports. Both suspects had real passports, issued in the names of Ruslan Boshirov and Alexander Petrov in 2016. They received these passports at almost exactly the same time — the passport numbers differ only by one, final digit. The St. Petersburg news outlet Fontanka found the passport details, most likely in a Russian police database that has information on all airline tickets purchased in Russia, which the outlet has access to.
- Social media. The agents may have received their passports in 2016 with fake names. But Ruslan Boshirov has a profile on a small Russian social media site, My World, which was created no later than July 2013. The details in the profile and the date and place of birth match those of the passport located by Fontanka. A coincidence is almost impossible: the last name Boshirov is very rare. On Russia’s most popular social network, Vkontakte, there are only 26 people with the last name Boshirov. The email address which Boshirov used for his My World account was also used for a Facebook account. The Facebook account is not very useful: it only contains a 2014 photo from Prague and the information that Boshirov worked for Moscow company Headway, which purchases medicine on behalf of the state.
- Information state databases. Russian crime journalist Sergey Kanev is convinced that the documents Boshirov and Petrov used to fly to London belong to real people. Kanev analyzed information held in Russian state databases. A database seen by The Bell lists that a man whose personal data coincide with Petrov’s became the registered owner of a Chevrolet Tahoe in 2001. According to anoither base, in 2015, Boshirov was fined for a driving offense.
Why the world should care
If the suspects are indeed GRU officers and flew to the UK using their real names then the operation to poison the Skripals was either botched, or the goal was to leave as large a trail as possible. GRU officers have previously left lots of evdence of their involvement in the case of MH17, the plane shot down over Ukraine, in the attempt to carry out a military coup in Montenegro and, of course, in the hacking of the DNC’s servers ahead of the U.S. presidential election in 2016. Special prosecutor Robert Mueller even revealed the last names of 12 hackers employed by the GRU and officially accused them of the cyberattack. “The GRU breaks into servers in a brazen, clumsy, and brutish manner… The GRU’s hackers didn’t even try to cover their tracks” is reportedly what Sergei Mikhailov, an officer in a competing intelligence unit, the FSB, said about the GRU’s methods. Mikhailov may have been a source of information for U.S. intelligence agencies about the GRU hackers. He was arrested in Russia for treason right after the U.S. election in 2016. Whether accidental or intentional, the GRU’s carelessness over the Skripals is only driving the West towards imposing more sanctions on Russia.
- Russian journalist Leonid Bershidsky attempts to explain the GRU’s bungling in a Bloomberg opinion piece.
- The most comprehensive information about the identities of the suspected poisoners is on Fontanka’s website (in Russian).
- Last year, The Bell was first to report the story about how GRU hackers were caught breaking into the DNC’s servers.
2. The murder of a separatist leader in Ukraine may pave the way for talks with the West
The Bell has clarified some details about the business interests of Alexander Zakharchenko, who was murdered last Friday. Zakharchenko was the leader of the largest rebel region of eastern Ukraine, the Donetsk People’s Republic (DNR). A business conflict is one of the theories for why he was assassinated. Suspicions have also fallen on Moscow for organising the killing as the DNR is, in reality, controlled by Moscow. A power shift in Donetsk could play a role in stimulating new talks between Russia and the U.S. about Ukraine ahead of the expected next big round of U.S. sanctions.
- A former electrician and chicken factory representative, Zakharchenko was one of the first separatist leaders to use Kremlin support to claim power in Ukraine’s second largest city, Donetsk, in the spring of 2014. Several months later he was elected president of the DNR. By 2018, he was the only field commander in the DNR leadership — others had either been killed, assassinated or fled to Russia. New presidential elections had been scheduled for the fall of 2018, but they were postponed indefinitely five days before the attack on Zakharchenko. The decision to postpone the election, just like any other political decision in the DNR, was agreed with Moscow.
- One theory about Zakharchenko’s murder is that he was killed in a business conflict. Moscow didn’t allow the head of the DNR to make independent political decisions, but it did allow him to control local businesses. As sources in the DNR told The Bell, Zakharchenko, and his colleague who was injured in the attack, DNR Tax Minister Alexander Timofeev, received a percentage of the profits of all the region’s gas stations, major supermarket chains and local tobacco and alcohol producers. For example, Zakharchenko’s widow owns a chain of fitness centers and restaurants in Donetsk. Zakharchenko and Timofeev acquired these businesses with the help of security officers loyal to them. According to one of the participants of the 2014 events in Donetsk, the scheme was as follows: if Zakharchenko and Timofeev took a fancy to a restaurant, then soldiers would quickly appear and begin a search. Then, one of Timofeev’s men would arrive to sort out the matter of transferring control of a stake in the business.
- But the most significant business in the DNR is coal production and metals. In 2017, 47 coal and metals companies in the DNR — owned by Ukrainian oligarch Rinat Akhmetov — were nationalized. According to The Bell’s sources and Novaya Gazeta, control over these assets was shared between Zakharchenko, Timofeev and Sergei Kurchenko, a billionaire close to former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych. The entire economic model depends on support from Moscow: coal and steel produced in Donetsk mines is needed by Ukrainian companies but they can only purchase the produce via Russia because of a trade boycott on the separatist territories. Novaya Gazeta’s sources say that DNR leaders wanted to increase their share of the profits from these businesses — and this made both Moscow, Kurchenko and those Russian siloviki running the businesses unhappy.
- No matter who was behind Zakharchenko’s murder, a new DNR leader may help Russia in peace negotiations. Formally, all current U.S. sanctions against Russia are in place because of Russia’s role in fuelling the conflict in Ukraine. Donald Trump said recently that finding a solution to the conflict was the main condition for sanctions to be lifted. At the end of September, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo may raise this, at Trump’s request, with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov. Immediately after Zakharchenko’s murder, Russian Duma Speaker Vyacheslav Volodin said that the killing nullifies the Minsk agreement on Ukraine, which was signed by Zakharchenko. This sounds aggressive, but the word “nullify” may also imply a desire to reach a new peace deal.
Why the world should care
The murder of Alexander Zakharchenko after the liquidation of all other independent field commanders fits the logic of those who argues that “Moscow is cleaning up in a gangster-filled region to ease talks about the region’s future”. But it’s not worth jumping to conclusions: in the unrecognized republics of eastern Ukraine, politics, business and criminality are closely interwoven. The murder of the DNR leader could just have easily been driven by money and not politics.
3. Russian lawmakers suggest the U.S. is interfering in Russia’s elections
Russian officials have finally came up with a response to the U.S. over its accusations of election meddling. The Central Election Commission (TsIK) has accused Google of running illegal advertisements on YouTube to promote unsanctioned protests organized by opposition leader Alexey Navalny. These are planned for September 9, the day of local elections. Threats have been made to block Google in Russia — but no one believes it will actually happen.
- Accusations against Google have been formally lodged by deputies. Letters were sent to TsIK, the General Prosecutor, and media watchdog Roskomnadzor. A warning was also issued to Google co-founder Larry Page and Russia’s Foreign Ministry announced it will inform Washington about the violations. On Thursday, officials announced that Google had begun talks with them. The formal letters say nothing about potential legal consequences but, under Russian law, Google in Russia could be blocked for promoting unsanctioned protests.
- Officials announced their warning to Google during a meeting of the Commission for the Defense of State Sovereignty, a working group of Russia’s upper house. In response to a question regarding about what deputies planned to do in response to Google’s actions, the head of the commission, Andrey Klimov, responded: “educate them”.
- The Commission for the Defense of Sovereignty was created in summer 2017. It regularly meets to suggest radical anti-American measures, which, for now at least, no one has carried out. For example, in fall 2017, after the U.S. classified RT as a foreign agent, the commission suggested Russian companies refuse to advertise on Twitter (no one followed this advice). At the same meeting, Roskomnadzor officials said they were prepared to block Twitter in Russia, but this never happened. Back then, these threats were fantastical, but earlier this year the Russian authorities banned messenger app Telegram, their first wide-scale ban of a mass market internet service.
- The accusations against Google are somewhat similar to the accusations against Russia about meddling in U.S. elections, as President Vladimir Putin sees them. In response to journalists’ questions, Putin says that the accusations of election meddling are against an individual, Evgeny Prigozhin, who has no relationship with the Russian government.
- Experts are certain no one will actually block Google, a service which is used by tens of millions of Russians. But officials like showing off for their bosses and will do everything to prevent Navalny leading a mass protest. State television channels and online propagandists now have a new topic for their pieces about U.S. meddling in Russia’s elections, which they can air during the upcoming U.S. midterm elections.
- Another indication of the beginning of a new round of media conflict between Russia and the West are signs of a new campaign against Russian media. At the beginning of this week, state-owned television channel RT published an article about the money behind independent, Latvia-based news outlet Meduza. The article claimed that Meduza receives financing from Swedish and British funds who are, according to RT, tied to George Soros. In response, Russia’s upper house of parliament suggested that Meduza could be classified as a foreign agent. The next day, the Public Chamber (a toothless body controlled by the Kremlin) held hearings about designating media outlets as foreign agents. The moderator, the editor-in-chief of an online publication owned by the sponsor of Russia’s internet troll factory, Evgeny Prigozhin, demanded that not just Meduza be declared a foreign agent, but also The Bell.
Why the world should care
On the eve of elections in the U.S. and likely new sanctions, Russian officials are preparing to heat up the information war between the U.S. and Russia. Officials are considering a wide range of possibilities — from blocking Google to repressive measures against independent media in Russia. The first step is unlikely, but the second seems highly plausible. So far, only Radio Liberty and Voice of America have been deemed foreign agents in Russia, and this hasn’t had any real impact on their work. But in the event that things do heat up, the list of media outlets branded foreign agents will be expanded and those on the list may be threatened with real restrictions.
4. The most successful Russian restaurateur in London on doing business with oligarchs and Putin
Restaurateur Mikhail Zelman is the most successful Russian restaurateur in the West. In the early 2010s, his restaurant Burger & Lobster was a London hit. The businessman now has 10 restaurants in the UK, two in New York, and one each in Kuala Lumpur, Stockholm and Dubai. In Moscow, Zelman was the co-owner of one of Russia’s largest restaurant chains, but at the beginning of the 2010s he sold his stake in to his business partner, metallurgical billionaire Iskander Makhmudov, and left for London. The Bell founder Liza Osetinskaya interviewed Zelman for our video project, “Russians are OK!”. Here are the most interesting quotes:
“I left because I understood that I can’t be a part of what is happening in Russia. [I understood that] I’m excited, but I’m not getting any internal rewards, I’m becoming more nervous, unhealthy, angry and ruthless. I want to be kind and good and to derive pleasure from what I do. I actually left my former self behind. The Misha Zelman who was in Russia, and the Misha who wanted to see his own future – they were in conflict with each other.”
On the restaurant business in the UK and Russia
“The restaurant business in Russia doesn’t differ at all from what we have here [in London]. But there is one difference: here you pay a lawyer while in Russia we paid bribes to officials. In Russia a bribe is a means of communicating, a means of coming to an agreement, of forming business relations. In society there are no normal ways of building relationships, and a bribe brings you closer to a person, it connects you. Many people pay and take bribes not because they need more money, but because it is a means of establishing relationships.”
On doing business with an oligarch
“It was 1996–1997. We were, in a good sense, so limited in our choices and stupid that we decided: now we’ll build a business empire! I needed a partner because in Russia you need some kind of protection. This protection could be provided by gangsters, the police or an oligarch. Of course, I chose the third option. We became friends, first and foremost. We spent time together. They came to my restaurant. And when I was in a partnership with Iskander Makhmudov, no one tried to take a bite out of my little restaurants.
Оn Putin and power in Russia
“One of the problems of our country is that neither Dmitry Medvedev nor Vladimir Putin have done anything with their lives. They are hereditary bureaucrats, and therefore we have created a country of bureaucrats. Putin and those currently in power are products of the Soviet Union. They want to recreate not the Soviet Union, but their own youth, their youthful maximalism. This goes down well in a country which lived through a shock [in the 1990s]. Letting Putin into power was a catastrophic mistake. Not because he is a bad person. He is actually a very good person: he invited his friends, they became rich people, he doesn’t turn on them. But a different kind of person was needed. It wouldn’t have been a disaster if they’d given power to people who were slightly different, with a different viewpoint. It is impossible to grow a business in an autocratic country because a business is a competitor and an autocracy implies there is no competition. It’s better now in Russia than during the time of serfdom when 2% of the population lived as parasites at the expense of the remaining 98% of the population. Now it’s the opposite: 98% live as parasites off the 2% who produce oil, gas and metals.”
5. Other important stories, briefly:
- The ruble and Russian stock market are falling again, as foreign investors exit ahead of new sanctions. On Thursday, the yields on Russian 10-year government bonds rose to 9.21% for the first time since April 2016.
- Putin’s personality cult rises reaches new levels with the launch of an hour-long TV show devoted to the president’s activities. The weekly show will not feature the president himself. Instead, his accomplishments will be recounted by his spokesman, Dmitry Peskov. Putin’s approval rating has fallen this summer following the announcement of rise in the pension age for men and women.
- Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev’s longtime aide and spokeswoman Natalya Timakova is quitting. In 2011, Timakova was believed to be a supporter of Medvedev running for a second presidential term and pushed him to support mass protests against Putin’s third term. As Medvedev’s spokesperson, Timakova will be replaced by Oleg Osipov, a top executive at RT.
This newsletter is made with the support of the Investigative Reporting Program at UC Berkeley.